Since Donald Trump took office, and increasingly as more evidence has come to light, we have been wondering whether he is somehow under the influence of the Russian government. That is a very reasonable suspicion. Paul Manafort, Ray Flynn, and Carter Page all held important positions in the Trump campaign or the Trump administration, and all of them have clear ties to Russian and Russian interests. So does his attorney Michael Cohen. Jeff Sessions and Flynn both seem to have discussed lifting sanctions with the Russians during the campaign. And the Trump Administration refused for some time to impose new congresssionally mandated sanctions on Russia, although it eventually did. The Russians clearly waged information warfare to help elect Trump Yet it is fair to say that the Trump Administration has done relatively little to help the Russians in its 16 months in office--perhaps, of course, because anything more that it did would look so suspicious.
The situation is quite different, however, with respect to two other foreign powers with longstanding influence in Washington. There appears to be nothing that these foreign governments want that they cannot get out of the Trump Administration. Both have had a lot of Washington leverage for a long time but both have now gotten things that they could not get from any previous administration. Those powers are Israel and Saudi Arabia.
In the past year, Donald Trump has given Benjamin Netanyahu three things that Netanyahu and his predecessors could not get from other US Presidents. First, he has officially abandoned US insistence on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question. Secondly, he has agreed to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, which nine previous presidents had declined to do. And last week, he backed out of the Iran agreement, allowing Israel to unleash a war against the Iranian presence in Syria, and very possibly paving the way for a much bigger war against Iran itself. Netanyahu, as an excellent Frontline documentary showed, was very close to dragging the US into that war before the Obama Administration and the rest of the great powers of the world reached the nuclear agreement with Iran. Now things may start moving in that direction again.
The Saudis, under the leadership of their dynamic, authoritarian new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman , are also enjoying new signs of Washington's favor. They have concluded a $23.7 billion arms deal with Washington, which may eventually rise to over $100 billion. They are getting encouragement, intelligence, and actual assistance from American military personnel in their war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The United States government appears to have decided to back Riyadh and the Sunnis against Tehran and the Shiites in the new Thirty Years War that threatens to wreak havoc in the Middle East for many years to come.
Other Administrations--most recently that of George W. Bush--have bent over backwards to curry favor with Jerusalem and Riyadh, but neither went that far. One channel of influence on Trump appears to be Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate and megadonor, whose wife is Israeli and who emerged late in 2016 as a big donor to Trump's campaign. No evidence has surfaced that Trump is under some financial obligation to either of these powers, or that one or both of them may have damaging information about him. But Trump certainly left some grounds for suspicion when he turned one of the most complex foreign policy issues the US faces--the Middle East peace process--over to his son-in-law Jared Kushner. Kushner is apparently bypassing the entire State Department and dealing personally with the Israelis and Saudis. This understandably caused friction with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has now been replaced by Mike Pompeo. It seems to me entirely possible that Kushner knows things about his father-in-law's relationships with Israel and/or Saudi Arabia that cannot be shared with professional American diplomats.
Benjamin Netanyahu--who, like Donald Trump, is under great pressure from official investigations within his own country--seems determined to take advantage of the opportunity offered by Trump, perhaps to impose some kind of one-state solution on the Palestinians, and perhaps to wage war against Iran. Trump seems quite willing to allow him to do this. We don't know why. I don't like raising these possibilities in the absence of the kind of evidence we have about Trump and the Russians, but circumstantial evidence is much better evidence than is commonly supposed. The circumstantial evidence for some kind of secret connection between Trump and the Israeli government--and perhaps the Saudi government--is significant, and a long-tine Washington insider and observer with whom I shared my speculation about Israel agreed with me on this.