Senator Bob Menendez's looming fall looks set to boost US-Turkey ties

The American lawmaker's dodgy dealings stretch from Washington all the way to the Mediterranean

Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, has been indicted on a string of corruption charges. EPA
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US Senator Bob Menendez visited Cyprus last month to speak at a Cypriot diaspora summit, meet Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides and perhaps retrace the origins of his Armenian-American wife Nadine, whose mother was born on the island.

The New Jersey Democrat, who has in recent years often opposed US deals with Turkey while backing Greece and its allies, received an award from the Greek Cypriot church for boosting the Greek Cypriot struggle for justice – the cherry on top of his late summer trip.

But the change in season has brought a change in fortune: federal authorities last week handed Mr Menendez and his wife a three-count federal indictment that evokes the tawdry New Jersey of fictional TV mob boss Tony Soprano, accusing them of leveraging his position in an array of schemes that stretch to the Middle East.

The first charge is that Mr Menendez, the most powerful foreign policy figure in Congress as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), accepted bribes to boost aid and arms sales to Cairo in an effort to encourage the Egyptian government to approve Egypt-born New Jersey businessman Wael Hana’s monopoly over the import of halal meat into Egypt.

Mr Menendez is also charged with seeking to undermine a criminal investigation into businessman Jose Uribe and influence the president’s choice for US Attorney in his district to help his wife’s friend. The indictment suggests Mrs Menendez, who was unemployed when the couple first met at a pancake house in early 2018 and would soon default her mortgage payments, was the main driver of the double-dealing.

The charge sheet details how Mr Hana, who claimed to have connections in the Egyptian government, was Nadine’s old friend, how she allegedly set up Mr Menendez’s meetings with officials from Cairo, and how she pressed Mr Hana for payments for services rendered. The indictment also shows Mr Menendez essentially appearing to do his wife’s and Mr Hana’s bidding.

Expect a quick fall for the 69-year-old whose rise was lightning-fast. The son of Cuban immigrants, Mr Menendez served on a New Jersey school board at 20 years old. A dozen years later, he was voted Union City mayor before moving on to the state senate and US Congress.

Expect a quick fall for the 69-year-old whose rise was lightning-fast

Since becoming a senator in 2006, he had regularly pushed for recognition of the “Armenian Genocide” as it is described in the US – an effort that succeeded a few years ago. But beyond that, his pre-2018 positions evinced no favouritism towards Armenia or Greece or animus towards Turkey.

Given her apparent influence on him, one starts to wonder if Mr Menendez’s defining policy stance over the past five years may have been driven in part by his wife, an Armenian with links to Greek Cyprus. Back in 2009, he even criticised then-Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias, pointing out the contradiction in the Cypriot leader’s denunciation of Turkey’s human rights violations in Cyprus while ignoring similar violations in Cuba.

A decade later, Turkey’s rivals had become the apple of his eye. In mid-2019, Mr Menendez introduced the Eastern Mediterranean Security act to strengthen ties between the US, Israel, Greece and Cyprus, and lift the long-standing arms embargo on Cyprus. The Senate passed the bill and Mr Menendez later received the highest civilian honours of both Greece and Cyprus.

Within weeks of Turkey expressing its desire to buy US F-16s in late 2021, Mr Menendez voiced his dissent, citing Ankara’s rights record and ties to Russia. Turkey had been removed from America’s F-35 programme in 2019 for buying a Russian missile defence system and Ankara’s $20 billion F-16 proposal was seen as a face-saving offer from the Nato ally. Yet Mr Menendez has repeatedly called for F-35 sales to Greece while maintaining his SFRC-chair hold on the F-16s, even after National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan cleared the way for the deal after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greenlit Sweden’s Nato accession in July.

As I detailed last week, the US has of late boosted military ties with Greece, Cyprus and Armenia, while levying sanctions against Turkey, even though entities in all these countries seem to have enabled Russian sanctions evasions. As SFRC chair, it’s reasonable to expect Mr Menendez had some influence on these policies.

The long-time senator may have come to his regional views on his own, and perhaps in time they will be proven correct. It’s worth mentioning that some of Turkey’s leaders are alleged to have dabbled in graft, notably in a 2013 corruption scandal that felled three ministers and a series of accusations two years ago from an exiled convicted criminal.

Yet Mr Menendez has his own history of influence peddling and illicit dealings. In 2010, he urged Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke to rescue a New Jersey bank run by executives who were big donors – a move one bank regulator called “grotesquely inappropriate”.

Mr Menendez reportedly received donations from the People’s Mujaheddin of Iran (MEK) when the US still listed the group as a terror organisation. And the latest indictment comes six years after an unrelated corruption trial ended in a hung jury and 17 years after he faced a federal inquiry in relation to payments from a non-profit group.

Set to appear in a Manhattan court with his co-defendants on Wednesday, Mr Menendez denies all charges. But he has stepped down from the SFRC and faces a tough primary fight in the lead-up to 2024 elections. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and most other state officials have urged him to resign.

Geopolitically, the timing could hardly be better. Turkey and Greece are mending ties, as highlighted by their leaders’ meeting last week in New York. And with Turkey’s parliament expected to approve Sweden’s Nato membership next month, the US could greenlight Ankara’s F-16 purchase now that the deal’s most vocal foe looks set to exit the stage.

In 2021, Mr Menendez told Congress that US foreign policy needed to be centred on “democracy, human rights, and the rule of law”. His departure seems likely to inch Washington closer to that goal.

Published: September 25, 2023, 1:59 PM