Turkey gloats at Menendez indictment but will it get the F-16 jets?
The announcement of federal corruption charges against Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., on Friday leading up to him stepping down as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), was met by snarky reactions in Turkish news outlets and social media, a response to the lawmaker’s strong and persistent criticism of Turkey.
Menendez, a well-known foreign policy figure and established power broker in the Senate, allegedly participated in a bribery scheme involving his wife, Nadine, and three businesspeople in his state of New Jersey, federal prosecutors announced on Friday.
The US attorney for the Southern District of New York, Damian Williams, told reporters that the senator allegedly “used his power and influence, including his leadership role on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to benefit the government of Egypt in various ways.”
Later the same day, Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer announced that Menendez would temporarily step down as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Turkish media outlets noted Menendez’s differences with Turkey in their coverage on Friday, including his support for Greece and Armenia. Turkey’s official Anadolu Agency accused the senator of being tied to the “Greek and Armenian lobbies.”
“Menendez is known for his anti-Turkey stance and for his close ties with Greek and Armenian lobbies,” claimed the outlet.
Turkey’s public broadcaster TRT ran a headline reading “Anti-Turkey US senator accused of bribery.”
Turkish journalist Ragip Soylu took it a step further, referring to Menendez as an “Armenian and Greek lobbyist” in a tweet.
Menendez and Turkey
The reactions are unsurprising given Menendez’s history with Turkey. The embattled senator has long been a vocal supporter of Armenian issue, urging the US government to recognize the Armenian genocide, which Washington did in 2021. Turkey disputes that the events constitute a genocide, and criticized US President Joe Biden for his decision.
Relatedly, Menendez, 69, is critical of Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan in the ongoing conflict with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
He is vocal in defending Greece in its disputes with Turkey including the maritime border and has often lashed out at Ankara’s military presence in Cyprus.
“If standing up to human rights abuses makes me an enemy of Erdogan — if calling out Turkey for arming Azerbaijan and enabling the massacre of innocent Armenian civilians makes me an enemy of Erdogan — if demanding Turkey recognize Greek and Cypriot sovereignty makes me an enemy of [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan — then it is a badge I will wear with honor,” said Menendez in a December statement.
Menendez has also placed a hold on the sale of US F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, something that has angered the policy and security establishment in Turkey.
Turkey had requested in October 2021 to buy $20 billion worth of F-16 fighter jets and nearly 80 modernization kits. High-ranking members of Congress including Menendez have objected to this sale, but could soften their position if Ankara ratifies Sweden’s bid, improves relations with Greece and maintains distance from Russia.
In July, Menendez said he was in talks with the Biden administration about the issue, calling on the administration to rein in Turkey’s “aggression.”
A hold is an informal practice whereby a senator can delay action on a congressional matter. Under the US Constitution, Congress has the right to review foreign arms sales.
“The biggest obstacle to the sale of F-16s to Turkey was Menendez,” Asli Aydintasbas, a visiting fellow at Brookings, tweeted on Friday, adding that Turkey is following the indictment “very closely.”
“The US government needs Senate approval for the sale. The Biden administration has long struggled to convince Menendez,” she added.
Some other observers agree that the Menendez indictment will be welcome news in Ankara due to the F-16 issue.
“I am sure the Turkish establishment will be pleased with the news of Senator Menendez’s indictment for taking bribes from Egypt,” tweeted Brooklyn College professor Louis Fishman on Friday. “He is one of Turkey’s most avid major adversaries in Washington, blocking the F-16 sales. This will make Biden’s work easier.”
Differences between Erdogan and Biden, however, could still delay the purchase. The US president has yet to invite his Turkish counterpart to the White House, and the two did not meet while in New York this week for the United Nations General Assembly meetings.
Erdogan’s delay in ratifying Sweden’s NATO bid, new US sanctions on Turkish firms allegedly doing business with Russia, and tension with US allies in Syria have all created a rift between Washington and Ankara, making the F-16 sale less about Menendez and more about the bilateral relationship.