Photo Credit: courtesy author
Aryeh Lightstone served as an advisor to US Ambassador David Friedman and as special envoy to the Abraham Accords. His account of his experiences, Let My People Know, was published last year. Today is the third anniversary of the announcing of the Accords.
US President Donald Trump, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyani sign the Abraham Accords on the South Lawn of the White House, Sept. 15, 2020.
Last week, I had the opportunity to interview Aryeh Lightstone, days before the news that there was progress in getting Saudi Arabia to join the Accords.

How does it feel to prove all of the experts wrong by negotiating the Abraham Accords Then Trump is voted out of office, those “experts” are back — and they are back to spouting the old disproven policy.

That’s why I wrote the book
Let My People Know. In May of 2021, Matt Lee, the great reporter for the AP, asked Ned Price, the spokesperson of the State Dept., what were these agreements called. And you can watch 2 minutes and 47 seconds of Ned Price turning himself into a pretzel to do anything but say the words “Abraham Accords.” 


To me, that was insulting — not because I needed to hear it, but because there were countries that took a risk and joined a circle of peace without preconditions and they called it the Abraham Accords. So for the US not to honor, recognize and support this agreement that it brokered, and walk away from it was so reprehensible. So that is why I wrote “Let My People Know” — so that people will know about the Abraham Accords. And if people knew what they were, Democrats would be up in arms against such ignorance by the Biden administration. The very first time that the Biden Administration came out pro-actively supporting the Abraham Accords was the day after the Afghanistan debacle, so they know that it works. It’s just a question of whether they can get past the personality and politics to get to the policy. They know it is good policy, it’s just bad politics to openly say it. 


The Abraham Accords happened because of the leadership of Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, David Friedman, yourself and others — but it was more than that. What else had to fall into place, both in the Arab world and in Israel to make this happen?

Well, I think a couple of different things happened. 

Foremost, the United States is the undisputed superpower in the world and when we act that way, a lot of really good things happen. When we back away from that, there is a vacuum. And it is not filled by Costa Rica — it is filled by the Russians, the Chinese and the Iranians. And for all their genuflecting to others, the Democrats put the world at enormous risk. Every one of our allies knows who we are, but sometimes we don’t know who we are. One of the greatest things we did was move the US embassy to Jerusalem. Israel didn’t need us to do that,
we needed to do that. We were afraid to move the embassy because of what other countries were going to say or do when we took an action that we wanted to do. But when we made that move, that was a superpower move. And when we opened up the embassy 6 months later, the rest of the countries in the region said, “Wait a second. This is an America who knows who they are and we want to be close to this America. And the path to Washington runs through Jerusalem.” They know that the only democracy in the Middle East has a special relationship. And the closer those other countries are to that special relationship, the more they can elevate their own relationship with the United States. 

Secondly, Israel is an attractive friend because of its economy and because of its military strength. It is not a “noch schlepper.” Just look at what world leaders said during COVID. They said that the solutions were going to come from the US or from Israel. Just look at the number of calls that the US National Security Council had with other countries. We had a
twice-weekly call with Israel. We didn’t have that with any other country. World leaders see the innovation, the power and the strength that comes out of Israel. Israel is the prettiest girl at the ball. 

You see the Arab countries who come and say that they want to build for the next hundred years, not re-litigate the last hundred years. How do they do that? They see that the Palestinian Arabs, by not moving forward on peace, are holding these Arab countries back and if they can move the Palestinian issue to the side then they can go ahead and take the next step forward. That takes a lot of guts and courage from those leaders.

Thirdly, Iran is terrifying.


Now suddenly the same Biden Administration that couldn’t say the words “Abraham Accords” is now pushing it. What changed?

I’m very skeptical that anything gets done. And here’s the reason: Biden hasn’t officially invited Netanyahu to the US.
 And when he met MBS last year in Saudi Arabia, the question was whether he was going to shake his hand or give him a fist bump. When the president cannot decide to embrace two of our allies, it is going to be very hard to picture him in that 3-way handshake. And the reason he cannot do that three-way handshake is that according to Biden’s politics, MBS is a bad guy and Bibi is a terrible guy. And that’s a shame because both of those leaders and the people they represent are incredibly important to the US. I don’t see how Biden overcomes that.

The second thing is, why did it take them so long to come around to the Abraham Accords? Because who
won in the Abraham Accords? Israel won — which is not such a great thing in the world of progressive Democrats. The people that Obama tried to undercut — MBS and Bibi — got stronger. These are strong, great leaders that we need to support, but there is a difference between Democratic and Republican foreign policy. 

The more the Abraham Accords succeed, the less likely it is for there to be a two-state solution on the 1967 lines. And that is the great foreign policy goal of the Democrats. And the more you push the Abraham Accords, the less leverage the Palestinian Arabs have and the less likely meaningful concessions can be extracted for the Palestinians. That is really why the Democrats cannot get behind the Accords.  


So the Biden Admin is going to push the Abraham Accords even though they are antithetical to the JCPOA?


Getting the Saudis to join will guarantee three things:

Biden will win a Nobel Peace Prize.

There may be a grand bargain involving the Saudis and Israel to step back from protesting against the Iran Deal.

They can get meaningful concessions, or put Bibi in a situation where he will be forced to change his government or retreat from the judicial reform. 

The Saudis are the great prize that changes the Middle East forever.


Can you picture a scenario where it would be inadvisable for Israel to enter into the agreement with the Saudis?

I can picture a scenario in all situations where there would be a disadvantage. But for the most part, peace is a good thing with external countries and I do not imagine Netanyahu’s government saying this would not be a good idea. This Israeli government has certain red lines and it is not going to move on these red lines. 


But won’t the Saudis insist on Israeli concessions to the Palestinians?

The Emiratis told Israel that it had the option to apply or not apply sovereignty, but if it did not then they would start a relationship with them. Israel had not applied sovereignty up to that time, they still have not applied it, and now they have peace with five Muslim countries. Israel will call that a win. There are things the Saudis can ask that are beyond the pale and there are things that are very reasonable. 

We believe the problem is not the Palestinian people. The problem is the so-called
leadership of the Palestinians. Anything that enfranchises the leadership is a mistake for the region and the Saudis see that also. If there is something that helps the Palestinians have better jobs and better opportunities, I think Israel would embrace it. I think the region should embrace it. 


You mentioned Russia, China, and Iran — how dangerous are they to the Middle East in general and to the Abraham Accords in particular?

When China brokers a reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the biggest losers at the table are the US and Israel, because as soon as the US retreats from the Middle East, even a little bit, someone else shows up. And if it is China, it means Russia and Iran as well. And that is dangerous. How much is that a danger to the Abraham Accords? The Abraham Accords have proven to be incredibly resilient. If the US does not project power appropriately, that will weaken Israel, because Israel has made clear they are with the US. You’ll see other countries throughout the region and throughout the world who say they are not sure whether they love the Chinese policy or not, but they can count on it for the next 100 years. But US policy seems to change every four years — and it doesn’t change a little bit. It changes 180 degrees. It’s really hard to make plans when you don’t know whether the US is your ally, depending on who wins an election that you have no influence over. It’s really a scary thing for our friends and allies and it weakens the United States. 


There has been talk over the past few weeks about whether the time has come that it would be beneficial for Israel for the US to end military aid. If the US were to do this, what kind of impact would that have on the Accords?

Every time the US takes a step back, that weakens Israel’s hand because the US and Israel are so tightly linked. But in this case, the US weakens itself. The aid that goes to Israel is incredibly well-spent money in the US. The aid might not be in Israel’s best interest, but it is in the US’s best interest. 

By the way, it is absolutely in the US’s best interest to make sure that Israel and the rest of the region are linked to the US and not to China. If you look at China’s spreading influence, China has great natural resources, Russia has great natural resources, and Iran has great natural resources — and now Saudi Arabia has the greatest natural resources. So if China secures that corridor, they become a power that is incredibly threatening to us. Forget about military reasons, just for economic and energy dominance. 

Now take the opposite approach: cut off China’s influence in Iran, which is a natural place to cut off, and you have the entire Abraham Accord region extending through Oman, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt and Israel — all as one strong alliance, getting along with each other, all deregulated. That’s unlimited land, unlimited workers, unlimited energy and unlimited economics — all in the US corner, surpassing what China is able to do. This is the pivotal part of the math that we need to win, “we” meaning the US. We need to win the Middle East, purely with influence. Israel and UAE  are willing to defend themselves by themselves and the US gets a tremendous return on that investment. We shoot ourselves in the foot when we don’t do that.


Why are the Saudis edging towards Iran and should we be afraid of how far they may go?


The Saudis are undergoing one of the greatest experiments in world history, of building a nation while reforming it and modernizing it all at the same time with basically unlimited resources. But this is a culture that does not adapt very quickly. They are cautious. But the Crown Prince MBS is not being cautious — he is going at warp speed.  The agreement with Iran, brokered by China, reflects the Saudi attitude that they are not in the war business, they are not in the war of religion business — they are in the building-a-nation business. So they want to be left alone, and this agreement is what it will cost to be left alone.

Again, this happened because the US took a step back. If the US had been there to say “This is our region and an attack on the Saudis is an attack on us” — those words would matter, because no one wants to attack the US in a way that pokes the bear and it in turn attacks them. They only attack the US and their allies when we are weak. When we are strong, they don’t do that.

It’s in the Chinese interest to have the Saudis and Iran get along also.


But while the Saudis may want to be left alone, leaving other countries alone is not something Iran is known for — as Syria, Lebanon and others can attest.

Yes, but Syria and Lebanon are not Saudi Arabia. The UAE re-established relations with Iran. They are basically saying “I accomplish nothing by considering you the axis of evil, especially since I don’t have the axis of good on my side.”

The Middle East is trying to get out of the war business and trying to get into the sustainability business, how to get from an oil and gas-based economy to an economy that works without oil and gas. They are trying to compete commercially, not ideologically. And because of that, they are trying to be friendly with everybody.

It is difficult to be friends with some countries. Iran is number one. But I think all of those countries look around and say “Well, Israel will probably take the brunt first and we’ll see where the world is. See if the US can have a consistent policy towards Iran, whether Iran will turn nuclear.” There are a lot of things that will happen in the next four to six years that will determine what people’s permanent foreign policies are toward Iran. 

The Biden administration will condemn Israeli domestic policies but where are they on these people in Iran who are sacrificing their lives on the street, this ultimate bravery in a non-democratic world? Just contrast these two things and I don’t know what set of world values somebody can have where they want to pick what is right and wrong in Israel but will not pick the side of truth versus falsehood in Iran. This is just moral bankruptcy.


Have the Abraham Accords had any positive influence on the Palestinian Arabs?


Two weeks ago, Abbas visited Jenin for the first time in eighteen years. To think that there is a Palestinian Authority is a joke. They are a bunch of different tribes that exist independently. If The US would work with specific individual leaders there, we could cultivate some meaningful relationships. But you need consistent policy across the board from Israel and from the US. 

If it hadn’t been for COVID and if we had had the support of the Abraham Accord countries also, then the Emiratis or Saudis or Moroccans could have come in and built Palestinian Arab businesses and industrial zones — better than the US or Israel could do it.

The way I rank the greatest beneficiaries of the Abraham Accords in order are the US, Israeli Arabs, the Abraham Accord countries, the Palestinian Arabs and finally Israel. We’ll see if I’m right or not as this plays out in the next twenty years.


You mentioned Israeli Arabs. How do they benefit?


Put yourself in the shoes of an Israeli Arab. From an identity perspective, that is a difficult place to be when the rest of the region has chosen to isolate you instead of embrace you. And if you are looking at the leader of the Arab world in terms of modernity you are looking at the UAE, which is considered “cool” And if the UAE says that Israel is “cool”, and I as an Israeli Arab can be a link between the UAE and Israel — then that gives me a strategic advantage. I can be a bridge instead of being in isolation. So as more countries join and you have a uniform Middle East where you can land in Tel Aviv or in Abu Dhabi and take a train without needing your passport or a visa across Saudi and Oman and Qatar and Bahrain and Israel and Jordan — at that point being an Israeli Arab is going to be very advantageous. That will solve their dual identity challenge.

I am very friendly with two Arab Israeli business leaders and their eyes light up when talking about the Abraham Accords because they speak both languages. I’m not talking about speaking to the investors but to the people of the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. Israeli Arabs realize that together with these Arabs and Israelis they can do incredible things. They see the unique opportunities they have. If you were to put the same Israeli Arab in Silicon Valley, they would be disadvantaged. It is the opposite of the Israeli who because of his networking background would fit right into Silicon Valley, but does not fit in as well as the Israeli Arab in Abraham Accord network.


 You wrote in an article last year that “the single greatest lever to encourage other countries to join the Abraham Accords, and yes that includes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is to show that the current Abraham Accord countries are a unique priority for Israel.” Will the current tensions and protests in Israel negatively affect how its partners in the Abraham Accords see them as an ally?  

What bothers me in the current situation is the language of the protestors and counter-protestors. It is reprehensible and shows a complete lack of awareness of the precarious situation Israel finds itself in. For four years I told other countries you cannot use derogatory language about Israel and now you have Israelis using that exact language about each other. Now when someone applies terms like “apartheid” “dictator” etc to Israel, they don’t have to quote one of our more progressive members of Congress. They can quote the opposition leader or the Prime Minister or the former Prime Minister. It has never worked out well. It’s turning an opponent into an enemy. It’s unforgivable if you know anything about Jewish history. It’s unforgivable when you are trying to acclimate yourself to a region that doesn’t have a lot of free speech and protests.


Why do we not hear as much about Arab travel to Israel as we hear about Israeli travel to Arab countries?


Two factors 

Israelis enjoy traveling everywhere. Compare this to the 1.2 million Emiratis and 400,000 Barhraininas — about 1.6 million between them. Of the traditional Arab citizens of those countries, unmarried women are not going to travel on their own and the children are not going to travel until they are more established and married. So it is a fairly limited Arab population that is going to be traveling to Israel for non-business reasons. The flow is more in one direction.

To me, the big change will be when Jordanian and Egyptian businessmen and women are coming back and forth as business people and as tourists. That will be another sign of the warming of the region. There is an acculturation process that is going to happen.

If you go to Morocco or the UAE or Bahrain, they are thrilled with Israeli tourism and also the American Jewish tourism.


Any final words

Bottom line, does any of this really matter?

We understand how the Abraham Accords matter to Jews and people who are pro-Israel because of shared values. But why should the Accords matter to someone in Iowa or Kansas?

I’d like to make the argument that it matters meaningfully, primarily because under Trump we saw that when you act like a superpower and you stand with your allies and friends, you can end up with meaningful results that the so-called experts never predicted — and the ramifications become incredibly meaningful. 

We were able to block out the Chinese from an area they were expanding into. Then, when we retreated, the Russians, Chinese and Iranians showed up. The Ukrainian situation would not have happened if the US had not retreated from the ME in the way that we did. To me, the Abraham Accords are the canary in the coal mine. As the Accords expand and grow, you will see the Chinese cautious about Taiwan and the Russians more hesitant about Ukraine. As we retreat, back off and have two distinct foreign policies, you will see chaos. Because it illustrates two foreign policies which are no foreign policies and anybody can run amuck. That is what you are seeing now.


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Bennett Ruda has been blogging at since 2003. He also contributes to the Elder of Ziyon website. Bennet lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey, with his wife and two children