Pro-Israel Groups See Suspicious Timing on Menendez Indictment

The Israel community is not about to stop supporting one of its biggest fans.

There are few members of Congress more doggedly supportive of Israel than Sen. Robert Menendez.

In a stirring speech to AIPAC in March, the New Jersey Democrat declared that "when it comes to defending the U.S.-Israel relationship, I am not intimidated by anyone—not Israel's political enemies and not by my political friends when I believe they're wrong."

As President Obama's administration has approached its nuclear negotiations with Iran, Menendez has acted as a surrogate on Capitol Hill for a pro-Israel community that often has been deeply distrustful of Obama's approach. Menendez has been unafraid to call out his own president and has accused the administration of issuing rhetoric that sounds like "talking points ... straight out of Tehran." Now that Menendez faces a federal indictment and charges of bribery and corruption, AIPAC—the pro-Israel community's biggest lobbyist—is cautiously standing at his side. At least for now.

"Since he came to Congress, Senator Menendez has always been a stalwart champion of the U.S.-Israel relationship. At this difficult moment, it should be kept in mind that innocence is presumed until proven otherwise in our justice system," says Marshall Wittmann, a spokesman for AIPAC.

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Wittmann says at a time when most politicians refuse to budge from party lines, " Menendez has overcome divisions and demonstrates effective, bipartisan leadership on matters of national security and standing with America's allies."

Other pro-Israel leaders such as Josh Block, executive director of the Israel Project and a former AIPAC spokesman, says an indictment does not change the pro-Israel community's relationship with an ally like Menendez.

"The reality of being friends is you are friends on sunny days and you are friends on rainy days," Block says.

But in the pro-Israel community, there is a strong sense that Menendez's indictment comes at a peculiar moment, just as the U.S. announces a framework for a deal with Iran.

"The timing is highly coincidental. And it seems like charges of this nature, when they are brought relative to a long standing decades-long personal relationship, are very difficult to prove," Block says. "Given the role he has played in opposing the administration's policy in these things, it certainly has the appearance of being politically motivated."

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Christians United for Israel, an advocacy group that focuses on educating members of Congress and the public on the importance of Israel, was also cautious to judge the indictment, but did say that the political climate did raise questions.

"Sen. Menendez is a strong, intelligent and independent voice in support of Israel and for sanity in our negotiations with Iran. While we cannot judge the merits of the indictment, we do find its timing extremely suspicious," David Brog, the executive director of Christians United for Israel, told National Journal in a statement.

Once the ranking member of the Senate's powerful Foreign Relations Campaign, National Journal reported Wednesday that Menendez was stepping down temporarily in order to not be a distraction as he faces a lengthy legal battle. Menendez is accused of trading his power in Congress for lavish trips to beach resorts and Paris. The Department of Justice is alleging Menendez used his post to help Florida opthamologist Salmon Melgen secure visas for girlfriends and get out of a Medicare case where Melgen owed the federal government nearly $9 million.

Now, without his ranking member spot on foreign relations, Menendez's ability to influence legislation may be compromised just as the committee prepares to mark up an Iran sanctions bill that requires Congress to have a say in approving any nuclear deal. They also are debating a sanctions bill that would go into effect if the U.S. cannot work out a nuclear deal. Menendez also may be sidelined from discussions about the upcoming Authorization for Use of Military Force against ISIS, which the administration has requested.

And his reputation as a key GOP ally may be in flux. Republicans often looked to Menendez's harsh criticisms of the White House's foreign policy toward Cuba and Iran to increase their side's own validity. Now, it's unclear if Menendez will be someone they want on their side.

Many Republicans refrained from sending out strong statements supporting Menendez when news of the indictment broke Wednesday. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chariman Sen. Bob Corker said only that he had "no knowledge of the judicial matters at hand," but that he did "appreciate [Mendendez's] bipartisan work on foreign relations issues and expect[ed] he will continue to play a constructive role."