‘Like the Gold Rush’: Aryeh Lightstone on how much more the Abraham Accords could have been
Second Trump term might have added up to 10 more countries, says former U.S. ambassador to Israel’s chief of staff, author of the new book, 'Let My People Know'
Aryeh Lightstone, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman’s closest aide, said that the Abraham Accords have “succeeded beyond the imagination of most of the leadership involved” since they were signed two years ago on the White House lawn.
On the other hand, Lightstone said, he believes an additional five to 10 countries would have normalized relations with Israel had former President Donald Trump won a second term and followed the playbook that yielded the historic 2020 agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
“It would have been like the Gold Rush,” Lightstone, 42, who was chief of staff to Friedman and was appointed special envoy for economic normalization in the Middle East, told The Circuit in an interview. He said the Biden administration could have expanded the cohort of nations initiating ties with Israel if it hadn’t been gripped by “Trump derangement syndrome” and distanced itself from the previous president’s achievements when first taking office. President Joe Biden has since said that he “strongly supports” the Abraham Accords.
Lightstone, an ordained rabbi, now hunts for potential Israeli investments as a consultant to Affinity Partners, the Saudi-backed private equity firm started by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and special White House adviser who led the team that negotiated the Abraham Accords. Lightstone recently wrote a book about his diplomatic experiences titled Let My People Know: The Incredible Story of Middle East Peace – and What Lies Ahead, published by Encounter Books.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Jonathan Ferziger: How would you rate the success of the Abraham Accords thus far?
Aryeh Lightstone: If you want to grade it on a curve, you had a pandemic, you’ve had three Israeli prime ministers and you’ve had two U.S. presidents. You had Iran, China and the Russia and Ukraine issues. I would argue that the Abraham Accords have not only withstood the challenges thrown at it but have grown and succeeded beyond the imagination of most of the leadership involved. Overall, I give it an 8 1/2 out of 10.
Have you been surprised by the way that business connections have developed since the agreements were signed?
What surprises me is that it’s normal. I think that, in and of itself, is remarkable. When [UAE’s] Mubadala invests [$1 billion] in natural gas coming from Israel, it‘s astonishing. If you were to just say that sentence five years ago, nobody would have believed a single component of that. The fact that relations are normal means that normal business circumstances will triumph and what that means is, like any other economic circumstance that becomes deregulated – because ultimately, this was enormous deregulation —- the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, Kosovo, all had regulations [against trading with Israel] that prevented economic growth.
What do these countries actually need from each other? [The] UAE is probably one of the most professional and impressive investment houses that the world has ever seen. So now with those platforms, having access both to direct investments in Israel, and access to Israeli technologies for that platform, you’re going to see deals happen. Bahrain is obviously a separate and a different economy. What are they looking for? An enormous amount of fintech. These deep technology relationships [with Israel] are moving along nicely, and you see them because they’re happening, because they’re not abnormal.
Morocco is a completely different story. I am incredibly bullish on what can happen with Western major multinationals and Israeli technology with a country of 40 million people that is geographically situated in a fantastic time zone. I think Morocco’s going to become the new Ukraine and India for sort of back office, and technological opportunities for multinational, specifically American and Western European, companies.
The Middle East and North Africa region needs Sudan to be a net food producer, and not a net food importer. And I think that you’ve got a lot of meaningful, powerful and visionary leaders who are sitting here rolling up their sleeves saying, how do we bring Sudan back to a time where they are the breadbasket of Africa? Because you’ve got enormous food security challenges, right? And I think you’ve got a confluence of events of Sudan trying to come out of the horrendous histories of the past.
How would the Abraham Accords have developed had President Trump won a second term in office?
I think you’d have had five to 10 more countries as part of the Abraham Accords. It would have been like the Gold Rush of 1848. You would have unadulterated U.S. economic power in the greater Abraham Accords countries like we’ve never seen before in this region. We would be energy independent at home in America. We’d be pivoting as much trade away from China as humanly possible. Imagine taking the Abraham Accords countries and placing meaningful and sustainable industry in Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan and Morocco.
Would Saudi Arabia have normalized relations with Israel?
Saudi Arabia is publicly reported to be a question of when and not if. There’s an economic dividend to be paid. I know Oman sees it. I’m sure Saudi Arabia sees it too. Go look at the greeting that President Biden got when he went to Saudi and look at the greeting that President Trump got when he got to Saudi. What did President Trump run on? When he ran for office the first time, if you remember, as the most Islamophobic racist presidents in America’s history. He ran on the Muslim ban, as it was known in the press, and he shows up to Saudi Arabia. There’s a meeting of dozens, if not close to 100 leaders of the Arab Muslim world. And he comes in and tells them radical Islam is not good for me, but it’s much worse for you. And they respected that and they understood that and they heard that and they greeted him royally. Because I think they appreciated the straight talk.
So you weren’t impressed with how Biden was greeted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman?
If you look at the conversation around President Biden’s trip, it was ‘Will he or will he not fist-bump or shake hands with the Crown Prince?’ That became the conversation and not the fact that if Saudi modernizes, that will be the single greatest achievement for this part of the world, this part being in the Middle East. There are a billion and a half Muslims who look to Saudi Arabia five times a day. Saudi Arabia can look a lot like Abu Dhabi, or it can look a lot like Afghanistan. I think the world is going to be much better if Saudi continues on the trajectory of looking much more like Abu Dhabi and Dubai. There’s an enormous desire to modernize the country. We should be rooting for their success and we should be helping with their success.
You were given the job of running the $3 billion Abraham Fund, which was set up to promote regional economic cooperation through private sector investment. How did you feel about its demise?
The one thing that upsets me greatly was the canceling of the Abraham Fund. If the United States of America could bring all of these entities together and say, we’re going to do this with Israeli technology and Gulf Cooperation Council support, political and otherwise, we could accelerate that. When you’re dealing with a country like Sudan or with parts of Egypt and elsewhere, and these projects take too long, that gives an opportunity for another coup, for another leadership issue. There’s not a lot of patience.
The money that the United States stipulated for this was not charity. It was a loan. We were going to make our money back. We were going to be a convenient platform. That’s all we needed to do. There’s lots of money in the region to do game-changing projects, but there’s also a lot of disparate personalities and interests. And when the United States of America creates a platform and says, look, this is not going to reach 100% of what you’re looking for but you can’t get there anyway. So we’re going to hit 75% of your to-do list and 50% of their to-do list, and 40% of their to-do list and America is going to this project, the project happens. Instead, these projects just wind up sort of limping along because there is no shepherd shepherding them. It’s not a money issue. It’s a platform issue.
Why wasn’t [former Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu allowed to go to the UAE before he left office and get his share of the glory for signing the Accords?
To the best of my knowledge, he wasn’t treated badly. There was an enormous amount of logistics issues that were happening. Prime Minister Netanyahu deserves enormous credit. The Abraham Accords would not have occurred without him, and history will remember that.
Do you think the Palestinians will ever accept the Abraham Accords?
Yes, because peace is going to win. We live in an information age where the people growing up in Jenin and Ramallah see Dubai and Abu Dhabi. They see Riyadh, they also see Afghanistan. They also see Tehran. They also see Haifa and Tel Aviv. There’s a point in time, where the Palestinians will have leadership that will look out for the future of the Palestinian people and not for their own bank accounts, or whatever it is that the so-called Palestinian leadership look out for. I promise you, they get it. All they need to do is deregulate. It will fly because it is meant to fly. There are too many fantastic things happening.
In writing your book, Let My People Know, what were you trying to add to the sum total of knowledge about what happened behind the scenes of the Abraham Accords?
Every waking moment of that job was a thrill of a lifetime. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. It was people who wanted to do what we wanted to help them to do, so that was fantastic. If these Accords had been led by anybody other than President Trump and, possibly, anybody other than Bibi as the signatory on behalf of Israel, this likely would have been the greatest news story of the last 20 years. Peace breaking out meaningfully in the Middle East. And expanding. It was rapid fire. Every other Friday, there was another country joining and there were countries who were still calling back after President Trump lost the election. There were countries that were still calling after January 6.
This was not a hard mental thing for the current administration to pick up and run with. The fact that they didn’t do it is the height of Trump derangement syndrome. They decided not to go with policies that work because they were affiliated with somebody else. I fear the change in foreign policy over the last 20 months may set us in a direction that is irreversible and may have been one of those points in history where we were able to stop the growth in the outlandish actions of Iran and China and now Russia, and we’ve gone the opposite way. At some point in time, there’s a tipping point where they will just be unstoppable. I pray that we’re not there. But we were at the point where they were stopping and we reaccelerated them and that’s why I wrote the book. It’s not a Republican thing. It’s not a Democratic thing. The Abraham Accords are in all of our interests. And I tried to describe that because nobody knows who I am. Nobody cares who I am. Nobody should care who I am. I’m a guy who was on the ground and who saw peace happening. And people should be excited about that. Peace is a good thing.