It’s one thing to go on a historic ride. It’s another thing entirely to actually arrange the ride yourself.
Meet Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone, a key behind-the-scenes player in the historic Abraham Accords normalization agreements between Israel and the Arab world. Don’t call him an architect of the accords, though.
“I’m not an architect. I’m a builder. Jared Kushner, David Friedman – these are the architects. People like me had the chance to take those designs and to implement them into things that have real, lasting consequences. What an honor and privilege. I haven’t needed an alarm clock in four years. One, because there’s so much to do every day, but, two, there is so much excitement in waking up each day, especially in dealing with the Abraham Accords,” said Rabbi Lightstone.
Before he got his current job, the 40-year-old Lightstone – who was ordained at Yeshiva University – worked for such Jewish nonprofits as the National Council for Synagogue Youth (NCSY) and Shining Light. His personal and professional circles in the Five Towns of Long Island often intersected with those of Donald Trump’s bankruptcy attorney, David Friedman, and when Friedman was selected as President Trump’s ambassador to Israel, he asked Rabbi Lightstone to become his senior advisor.
In working for Friedman, Rabbi Lightstone facilitated everything from the historic first commercial flights between Israel and multiple Arab nations to the nuts and bolts of the visa, trade, and economic agreements that serve as the backbone of the now normalized relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.
“Everyone needs a regulatory environment that they understand and can become familiar with, and when countries don’t have prior relations, you need to build that foundation for that to happen. So, to make an investment, you need an investment treaty, you need to understand the tax implications and patent protections. For flying, you need to understand visas and how civil aviation speaks to each other. So a lot of this is connecting the dots between the people, companies, and cultures,” said Rabbi Lightstone.
“The U.S. served not as the negotiator or mediator, but as the facilitator. America has good relations with these countries, so we are a natural facilitator.”
Since the U.S. brokered the normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE in August 2020, the ball hasn’t stopped rolling. Indeed, it’s arguably only gained steam. “We are in position to be the feel-good story of 2020 going into 2021,” said Rabbi Lightstone. “This is not P.R. This isn’t about tweeting. This is about changing history.”
“The normalization process would have been more natural in a non-Covid world,” he added, “but the U.S. helped these countries overcome that obstacle and seize upon the opportunity. The relationship between the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel was a tightly-coiled string just waiting to be released. The relationships emanating from these agreements have caused that wellspring of excitement elsewhere. People are now looking at this region not as a source of frustration and consternation, but as a source of hope.”
With Trump departing the White House, there is anxiousness over what a Joe Biden-led administration will do. Will it seek to build upon the momentum of the Abraham Accords?
“Peace doesn’t belong to one party or one religion,” says Rabbi Lightstone. “It belongs to mankind. But, we live in a region where talk is cheap and action is respected. The implementation of the Abraham Accords is changing lives in the here and now, and the immediacy of this is very relevant.
“I don’t need to prognosticate about a future American administration because I can prognosticate about the American people. The American people have always been for peace, freedom, prosperity, and security. It starts with the U.S. standing with Israel with no daylight in between. That created the room for the Abraham Accords to progress rapidly. Any and every American will be supportive of this.
“There’s no wrong time for peace. If more countries sign on tomorrow, we will embrace them. And if it’s 18 months from now, the U.S. will embrace them, as will the world. There is no concept of peace belonging to Republicans or Democrats. That said, this administration deserves – and probably will not get – an endless amount of credit for creating the environment for what so many people thought was possible but never came to fruition,” said Lightstone.
As credit for his efforts, Lightstone was designated last month the State Department’s Special Envoy for Economic Normalization, a title he held until his tenure ended on Wednesday. He now plans to return to New York.