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Menendez Mid-East Trip: “We Must Engage”

Washington—Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), recently returned from the Middle East, where he had heart-to-heart talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, King Abdullah of Jordan, and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.  In Israel, he also met with President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, and Chief of the Mossad, Tamir Pardo. He also visited an Iron Dome facility, but graciously declined a demonstration of the defense system, which would have cost taxpayers $50K.

The Senator is highly-regarded in Israel for his 20 years of unwavering, solid support and advocacy of the State,.  Two weeks ago, he introduced a bi-partisan resolution with Senator Lindsey Graham, (R-SC) that fully supported Israel’s right to defend herself, but fell just shy of authorizing Israel to use force if Iran crossed the nuclear red line Netanyahu had drawn in the sand. The resolution stated that if Israel had to take military action, the U.S. should stand with Israel, using everything it had in its arsenal…from sanctions to military assistance.

The Senator has repeatedly defended his strong pro-”engagement position in the “new” Middle East. He noted, “We cannot stand up for America’s interests—or Israel’s—from the sidelines. Now is the time to roll up our sleeves and engage in support of our ideals, values and interests…. The United States must play a role in tipping the scales toward moderate opposition groups and work to build a free and stable Syria.

At the top of the agenda was the Iranian threat which has destabilized the region from the Balkans to the Persian Gulf. And because the Iranians are activating hundreds of centrifuges, while they stonewall inspectors,  Menendez pushed through legislation to impose the “crippling sanctions” that halved Iranian oil exports, and is calling for even tougher rules to cut those exports further. He adds, “We need to explore options for increasing military pressure on Iran to make clear that we will take all necessary steps to prevent a nuclear capable Iran, including the military option if all others fail.”

“There are more sanctions on the way to tighten the noose on the Iranian economy,” Menendez said. “This trip was helpful to help me determine what to do next that can be effective while keeping the international coalition against Iran together.”

The other pressing issue under discussion was the chaos in Syria—which has led, the Senator said, to one of the greatest humanitarian crises on the planet. In an article he wrote for the English Haaretz, he explained the legislation he introduced two weeks ago. The bill gives the U.S. more flexibility to provide humanitarian aid and creates a transition fund when Assad falls— and it introduces sanctions on companies that sell oil and arms to the Assad regime.

More troublesome is the provision  that allows the arming of vetted, moderate fighters in the opposition. Menendez knows full well the consequences of what would happen if those arms fell into the wrong hands. “I know that there are real concerns… But the choice is not between arming and not arming. The choice is between responsibly stepping in or leaving it to others who will simply arm the extremists. …After two years of dealing with the opposition, we have a sense from our intelligence and our allies who that moderate opposition is.”

Menendez said he was concerned about the fate of Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles, considering Hezbollah already has thousands of missiles aimed at Israel from Lebanon..

Menendez is pleased with Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempts to restart the peace process, and he has always been supportive of a two-state solution that guarantees Israel’s security. He hopes the parties will come back to the table, and avoid distractions and grandstanding at inappropriate venues like the United Nations.”

Before heading to Israel, Menendez was in Amman for talks with King Abdullah, and toured a huge refugee camp on the Jordanian/Syrian border. The Jordanian population is now 20 percent Syrian refugees, and huge needs require huge sums of money that the Jordanians do not have. Menendez found conditions in the camp “shocking,” and expressed sympathy for the almost 100,000 Syrians killed in the fighting and millions of innocent civilians who have been displaced.

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