Lightstone On The American-Israeli Relationship
And His Debut Book ‘Let My People Know’
How do you say no to an offer you can’t refuse?
Aryeh Lightstone, 42, almost did. He’d become friends with David Friedman, former President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel, and Friedman got the president’s approval to allow him to bring along a senior advisor. Lightstone worried that since they were both politically conservative and religiously Orthodox, the optics might be that they were too similar. But after a discussion he agreed to take the position and moved his family to Israel for his job from 2017 to 2021.
“It was the greatest privilege of my life,” Lightstone, who is an ordained rabbi, told The Jewish Press.
Lightstone, who’d later be named special envoy for Economic Normalization in The Middle East, recently released his riveting debut book, Let My People Know: The Incredible Story of Middle East Peace and What Lies Ahead. The book details working toward the Abraham Accords, fighting antisemitism, and how people warned that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would result in carnage.
Ideas About Embassy Move Were Totally Wrong
When I interviewed Friedman shortly before the 2016 election, he said the embassy would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Lightstone notes that a number of presidents promised this in campaign speeches but didn’t follow through. In his book, he writes that all the diplomats warned of large-scale violence, many deaths, and diplomatic disaster. He said the people saying this were in echo chambers with no introspection.
“There is a difference between deed and creed,” Lightstone said. “We sent people to governments who said it would be a bad move. This was not a hill they were going to die on. It was very clear we were misinformed. President Trump had the courage and David went up to bat. Not a single person lost their job or was even criticized though they were wrong. We were called lucky because ‘experts’ can’t be wrong. Not having the embassy in Jerusalem was creating a vacuum of uncertainty.”
In the book, he notes that some said the U.S. should have gotten a concession from Israel in return, but he points out this was something already approved and presidents kept signing waivers because they were told the move would lead to enormous violence.
“If one martyr blows up a bus and kills seven Zionists, how many martyrs does it take to kill 28 Zionists?”
Lightstone writes that this question was part of the curriculum of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, known as UNRWA. Trump cut funding to the program and then UN ambassador Nikki Haley was asked by some to restart it, even though she’d publicly spoken against it. He writes that Haley said she would resign if that was the decision. Funding was not restored at that time. Lightstone said that in speaking with Haley, her position was clear.
“I wasn’t surprised, as I understand Nikki’s argument,” Lightstone said. “When representing the United States of America, you have to take yourself seriously. If you get up and say something, you have to follow through. Her comment was ‘I won’t be effective at my job if you cut the knees out from under me.’ That’s her personality.”
Lightstone said he’s not surprised President Joe Biden restored funding.
Kerry Drank the Kool-Aid About Possible Peace With Arab Countries
Lightstone notes in the book that John Kerry, the former secretary of state, said that until there was a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians there could be no peace between Israel and other Arab countries. Lightstone said the Abraham Accords show this is not the case. He said he thinks Kerry has good intentions, but because he’s in an environment with no introspection, where everyone claps at his speeches, he thinks he’s correct.
“He’s a product of the system he cares about,” Lightstone said. “It protects its own. That’s why David [Friedman] was so hated.”
Lightstone said Kerry is too concerned about what European nations think and believes America must help the underdog. He also said the Iran deal was a large mistake that resulted in enormous funding for terrorism.
When Trump tapped son-in-law Jared Kushner to work on peace initiatives in the Middle East, many in the media scoffed and said it was an example of cronyism. After all, why select a real estate expert as opposed to a foreign policy expert or former diplomat?
“His performance will go down in history as one of the greatest diplomatic performances,” Lightstone said, saying Trump deserves credit for giving Kushner the task. “When people spoke to Jared, they believed they were talking to the president. He solved problems in real estate. People can go to cocktail parties and write academic papers, but Jared solved problems.” While the Abraham Accords were an unexpected success, Lightstone said when asked about not achieving any significant peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, “You can’t wave a magic wand and have unicorns and rainbows.”
According to Lightstone, who is originally from Denver, there is a nugget that wrongfully goes unchallenged. Expectations have been too low and rather than going on the offense, defenders of Israel and Jews worldwide have been so used to playing defense and accepting crumbs, when they should be clear about the main dish that needs to be served.
“I get upset when a leader says Israel has a right to defend itself,” Lightstone said. “It’s become part of the vernacular. But Israel doesn’t have a right to defend itself. It has an obligation to defend itself. The primary obligation of any government is to defend its citizens. For someone to say Israel has a ‘right’ means someone else can get up and say the opposite.”
On the issue of BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanctions), from colleges to ice cream stars, and B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group that claims Israel is an apartheid state, Lightstone said it is tempting to ignore these efforts due to fatigue or a belief that opposing them can make them stronger and give them more publicity.
“We’ve been fighting for Israel and against antisemitism as long as I’ve been alive and it doesn’t seem like we’re any closer to winning tomorrow than we were yesterday,” he said. “We’ll never cure antisemitism, which is what BDS is, and we’ll never cure self-hatred, which is what B’Tselem is. So why do we fight? The answer is that the day we don’t fight is the day they win.”
The One Time He Had No Words
One of Lightstone’s responsibilities was to visit shiva homes of Israeli soldiers killed or civilians murdered by terrorists. While he has met famous athletes, movie stars and world leaders, one of his most emotional moments was when he visited a shiva house. A father who was killed left 13 children. Not knowing what to say, he asked each child to say something about their dad. Lightstone said when he would visit the home and even walk into a room of a fallen soldier, he would get choked up.
“That was one of the hardest things to do,” he said. “There are no words. We’re supposed to have words. We’re diplomats. Our job is to show up and support.
“There is a true sense of awe when you walk into the room of someone who has paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect and defend something that the Jewish people at large have been praying and crying for 2,000 years.”
Trump in Perspective
Lightstone said he’d often have debates from figures from around the world and often, when they could not prove him wrong on a substantive issue, of policy, their default position was to critique Trump’s personality. He said this was often used as a crutch.
“Small people focus on personality,” Lightstone said. “Big people focus on policy.”
Critics of Trump point out that according to Israeli journalist Barak David, Trump said “F-Him” for congratulating Biden on winning the 2016 election, when Trump believed it was too early to do so.
“They worked well together for a period of four years,” Lightstone said of the two leaders. Obviously, President Trump didn’t like that Prime Minister Netanyahu came out, from his perspective, early. Prime Minister Netanyahu thought he did the right thing because the relationship between Israel and the United States is supposed to be above the leaders and that’s a political issue. Israel will remember Trump as the greatest friend to Israel the United States has produced thus far.”