Menendez ouster improves odds for F-16 sale to Turkey, top Republican says

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Washington’s push to sell F-16 fighter jets to Turkey may have better odds after a top critic, Sen. Bob Menendez, stepped down from a key congressional post, according to House Foreign Affairs Chair Mike McCaul.

Menendez (D-N.J.), sidelined after he was indicted on federal corruption charges, blocked the jet sale due to Ankara’s aggression against its neighbors and internal repression. But he’s only one piece of the puzzle; the U.S. can’t sell the warplanes without buy-in from the top Republicans and Democrats on the foreign policy panels in both chambers.

And there is still plenty of opposition on both sides of Capitol Hill.

“I’m reading the tea leaves, and he was one of the four that was still kind of holding out, so I think it’s more likely it’s going to be approved — but Sweden’s got to be admitted to NATO,” McCaul (R-Texas) said in a brief interview. “We’re saying we’re not going to consider this if you’re going to play hardball against Sweden.”

Turkey has been seeking 40 of the Lockheed Martin-built fighter jets, and White House officials said in July that they plan to move forward with the transfer to the NATO ally, a day after Ankara pledged to approve Sweden’s NATO membership. The administration has said the two issues are not linked.

But congressional gatekeepers have said Turkey must also repair its ties with Greece after several flare-ups before allowing the sale.

After Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met on the sidelines of the United Nations general assembly last week, McCaul said he anticipates a clear path on that issue: “I don’t see that holding up the process.”

Menendez, facing federal charges that he took cash and gold in illegal exchange for helping the Egyptian government and New Jersey business associates, relinquished the job of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Friday while he remains under indictment.

Erdoğan said in remarks published Tuesday that with Menendez out, he sees an “opportunity to accelerate the process regarding the F-16s,” through more talks between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan.

“One of our most important problems regarding the F-16s were the activities of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez against our country,” Erdoğan told journalists on a flight back from Azerbaijan.

“Menendez’s exit gives us an advantage but the F-16 issue is not an issue that depends only on Menendez,” Erdoğan added.

McCaul, Menendez, Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Jim Risch (R-Idaho), and House Foreign Affairs ranking member Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) have all opposed the sale of the jets to Ankara for overlapping reasons. Menendez was the most vocal about his demands that Turkey cool tensions with its neighbors.

This week, Meeks still wasn’t ready to budge. He first expects the Turkish parliament’s ratification of Sweden’s NATO accession, for Turkey to continue to calm tensions with its neighbors and for it to work with NATO to counter illicit Russian financial flows.

“I have some of the same kind of issues that Mr. Menendez had. … All those things are important to me,” Meeks said in a brief interview.

“I want to make sure we have a true, strong NATO ally that’s there so that we can work together. So there’s dialogue and conversation that I’ve had,” he added. “It’s a wait-and-see game right now.”

Risch on Wednesday said nothing had changed about his opposition to the F-16 transfers, and he declined to comment on Menendez’s situation or Erdoğan’s specific comments, but did say he was “way past frustrated” with the Turkish leader.

“Erdoğan could have solved this a long time ago. I’ve told them directly that until both Finland and Sweden are in NATO, F-16s are not going to move, period. So he knows that,” Risch said in an interview.

On the issue of Turkey and Greece’s relations, Risch said he was “satisfied that both parties have been working in good faith to lower the temperature” and hailed the “significant progress.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who is in line to replace Menendez as Senate Foreign Relations chair, declined Wednesday to tell reporters how he would approach the matter once he takes over.

Other lawmakers outside the leadership of the committees overseeing U.S. foreign policy have been taking a hard line to pressure the administration. Though not as influential as the committee leaders, those lawmakers have pushed for legislation to tie the administration’s hands on the sale.

“When it comes to Turkey obtaining the F-16, nothing has changed,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a vocal Turkey critic, said in a statement. “The U.S. Congress will not accept any sale until certain conditions are met. I will continue pushing to ensure Turkey does not receive F-16s until Sweden has been admitted to NATO and until we see a commitment from Turkey to respect Greece’s airspace and cease its aggression toward our Syrian Kurdish allies.”

There’s also plenty of resistance to a fighter sale in the House. Lawmakers threw up a roadblock last year to Biden’s push to sell F-16s to Turkey in their defense policy bill, led primarily by Democrats.

The provision — which would have barred the jet transfer unless the administration certified to Congress that the sale was critical to U.S. national security and that the warplanes wouldn’t be used to violate Greek airspace — did not survive negotiations with the Senate on a compromise defense bill.

Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), a co-chair of the Hellenic Caucus and a sponsor of the House provision to limit a sale, vowed to continue to work to block it.

“Regardless of who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the fact of the matter is that the House and Senate have made their opposition to these sales clear,” Pappas said in a statement. “I will continue to work alongside my colleagues on the Hellenic Caucus and in the House as a whole to prevent these sales from moving forward so long as Turkey continues to violate Greece’s sovereignty, undermine NATO, and delay Sweden’s accession.”

Source: Politico

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