Two Years After the Passage of the Abraham Accords: 
A Conversation

It seems like an eternity ago but on September 15 it will be only two years since the United States brokered the Abraham Accords. This series of agreements to normalize relations between two Arab states—the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain—and Israel broke an impasse that had prevented wider peace building efforts in the Middle East since the mid-1990s. Later Sudan and Morocco joined the initiative which became one of the most celebrated accomplishments of President Donald Trump’s tenure. 

The accord clashed with the conventional wisdom of each administration since Bill Clinton’s that a final peace status agreement between the Palestinians and Israel would need to be signed first before a separate peace could be achieved with other Arab states. 

Recently I had the opportunity to discuss the question of whether the agreement remains secure today under the Biden Administration with one of the diplomatic appointees involved in the process, Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone. His designation to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv (and later Jerusalem) would attract criticism given his religious and political background regarding Israel, but nevertheless he played a central role in coordinating with the Gulf states during the entire negotiation process. We further discussed the difficulties of pursuing ambitious goals while depending on jaded career State Department officials, as well as many other related questions. He goes into behind-the-scenes detail on these issues in his book Let My People Know

(The full video of our interview is available here.) 

Ray McCoy: The signing of the Abraham Accords was an event that took the world by surprise in 2020 in the midst of an otherwise depressing news cycle with the COVID-19 pandemic. What was the greatest obstacle to making it happen, and was there a moment when it seemed like the whole project may fall apart? 

Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone: Yeah, I mean until it happened it could have fallen apart at any moment . . .  and I credit Avi Berkowitz and Jared Kushner who shepherded it all the way to the goal line and over it because getting it close doesn’t count. At any point in time the whole thing could have fallen. It could have fallen from Israeli politics . . . It could have fallen with internal issues in the United Arab Emirates, or external issues causing internal issues in the United Arab Emirates. 

And really, I’ve said this time and time again: Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates, today the President of the United Arab Emirates, deserves a Nobel Prize above and beyond anybody else involved with the Abraham Accords, because he took the greatest risk. He had the greatest benefit from being that leader, but he also took the greatest risk. Everybody else had only benefit and no meaningful risk. And therefore he deserves that credit and if it were to teeter at any point in time it was in his calculation of the cost benefit analysis. And you know, history will remember him pushing his chips to the middle of the table and saying “I’m betting on peace.” And so far history has proven that to be a very sound bet so G-d bless him and credit to him. 

RM: A few months later the 2020 election was held and as a result your group has been replaced along with other Trump Administration appointees. Since then, the Biden Administration has presided over the Afghan withdrawal debacle, major tensions with Saudi Arabia, and other foreign policy crises outside of the Middle East. Do you see the danger of having some of the accomplishments that were achieved in recent years could be undone? 

RAL: No I don’t. Mostly because our allies aren’t puppet governments. Our allies the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, certainly Israel are going to do what’s in their best [interest]. A lot of people used to criticize President Trump and “America First” foreign policy as racist or something else like that. Every country should have their country first as a foreign policy. So Israel’s foreign policy is an Israel first foreign policy, and that means that they’re going to advance the Abraham Accords as best as they can. The UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Kosovo . . . they also have that same policy. And as long as peace pays it will succeed. Do I think other countries will join without the U.S. umbrella platform and encouragement? I think it’s less likely. I’m still optimistic that the success of the Abraham Accords will be so obvious in the next two or three years that regardless of where the U.S. administration is, other countries will want to join because peace will pay. There will be a dividend. You can see this in real time: You can see Egypt and you can see Turkey. Two countries that were steaming the opposite direction away from Israel have now begun—not steaming towards—but certainly inching towards in more meaningful ways. Just this week Israel and Turkey have re-fully normalized their relations. And that would not have happened without the Abraham Accords. So peace pays. 

RM: So you’re saying it’s like a more logical move than people think? As opposed to it just being a result of American lobbying of other foreign governments as the press has portrayed it? 

RAL: America needed to create the circumstances where the breakthrough would happen, Trump, Kushner, Berkowitz, General Correa . . . Success has many fathers. I’m saying that there are other people who deserve meaningful credit for that but once the perception was broken that you couldn’t have this peace, the countries are invested in the success of the peace and therefore every country is competitive with other countries that are there. Assuming that peace continues to pay this dividend, other countries will want to join or at the very least it won’t be beneficial for other countries to retreat, and we’re seeing those dividends in real time. Again, Egypt and Turkey are two prime examples of that. The Saudi issue is a U.S.-led . . . bumble if you will, for not leading that more strongly. It’s a big mistake; the Saudis are good allies of ours. We should be embracing them meaningfully. We should be rooting for MBS and success. We should be rooting for the Saudis’ modernization. It’s really one of the great experiments that we’re watching in real time, and we should hope that they succeed. 

RM: Having been reintroduced into politics through Ron Paul, I don’t want American troops to be involved in foreign conflict in the Middle East or elsewhere. So, I wanted to ask you, having served in a diplomatic capacity in that region: Do you see that ever being accomplished and if not then what would be the American endgame in the region? 

RAL: You and I don’t disagree at all. We don’t want to see American young men or women in harm’s way anywhere in the world. We’ve got two options. Option number one is we strengthen our allies, or our allies become weaker and then we have to send our men and women into that area. The stronger we create our alliances and bolster our allies and the stronger they work together, the much less likely it is that we’re going to have American soldiers in harm’s way. You and I could disagree whether we should have soldiers posted abroad, what types of actions they could be taking, and I’m happy to have that conversation. But there’s no doubt about it, the Abraham Accords make it far less likely that U.S. troops are going to be in an interventionist fashion in the Middle East and we should support that. It’s a fantastic way where we get a good meaningful return on a result. And you would know this as well as anybody else: Israel has never asked for a single U.S. soldier to serve beside Israeli soldiers. That’s the motto that we want all of our allies to have. The more that they work together the far better off it is for America. 

RM: You mentioned during a speaking engagement that I attended that you had instances where the State Department itself made your job more difficult. Can you speak to what occurred and why? 

RAL: Yeah, I want to be specific here for one moment. I think people that give of their lives to serve the U.S. government deserve credit. There’s some point in time where that idealism turns into cynicism and that’s disappointing. Because I think that—look I didn’t sign up and spend 30 years of my life serving the U.S. government. So the people who do deserve a baseline of credit. Now there’s something that happens along the way to some of them, not all of them, that creates this disdain for political appointees which is an enormous mistake. There were those people in the U.S. Embassy in Israel who got it. And those people who didn’t, those who were obstinate, made my life more difficult. They made Ambassador (Daniel) Friedman’s life more difficult. But they ultimately became irrelevant, and they did petty childish things that petty childish people do. 

There were people who said you know, there’s a president who was elected [and] he’s entitled to his people, and Ambassador Friedman selected me. So therefore I tried to serve both of them as best as humanly possible. For the embassy people who understood that and got that and got on board, they got to be part of one of the most exciting times of foreign policy history ever for the United States of America. And those people who jumped on board got to help open the embassy in Jerusalem. They got to help with the merging of the Jerusalem consulate with the U.S. Embassy. They got to play a meaningful role in repatriating Americans and Israelis during COVID, and they got to play a meaningful role in the Abraham Accords. Every single one of those people who jumped on board will tell their kids and grandkids about how their service made the United States of America safer, more productive, and more prosperous by helping our allies. 

And those who didn’t, those who wanted to throw obstacles in our way . . . well how they’ll justify how they spent their time to themselves, their spouses, their kids and grandkids is up to them. But I can tell you this: they did not win, they were not successful, and they were the exception not the rule. There were plenty of people who wanted to jump on board and help create a better Middle East, and I’m blessed and grateful for the people who did that.

RM: Another outgrowth of the 2020 election is that everyone associated with the prior administration is often seen as a leper, because among other things so many senior figures including the former president are facing investigations or even prosecution. Have you or any of your personal colleagues faced any professional or legal attacks because of your roles in the Trump diplomatic team? 

RAL: Well, I think the concept is—as a whole you’re right. People who served in the previous administration have been treated poorly across the board by institutions that are considered mainstream. If you look where senior officials from previous governments normally have gone, those opportunities have not been open to members of the Trump Administration. When you want to get into specifics regarding prosecution or persecution of individuals, I would tell you that we’re at a dangerous place in America. I’m not going to comment on any specific investigations etc., including and especially the president, but the rhetoric is beyond bad. And we’re in a place where I think we all need to think very carefully about what it is that makes America “America,” and work very strongly towards that. Everybody that I met in the administration worked very hard for the United States of America. Day in and day out, they didn’t work for the voters of Trump. They didn’t work against the voters of Hillary, they worked for Americans. And I think that that is something that needs to be counted and recounted and appreciated. And this strong wave of vilification is disappointing to say the least. 

RM: You mentioned that one legislative priority you have long supported is the passage of anti-BDS [the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement] legislation on the state level but in recent years federal courts in states like Georgia and Arkansas have struck down such laws for first amendment violations delivering rhetorical victories to BDS advocates like Abby Martin. Do those decisions impact whether you still support that strategy of laws at the state level?

RAL: Yeah, I think the strategy is a good strategy, [but] the strategy likely needs to be refined in order to be in line with what the Constitution does and does not allow. I certainly am not advocating for the changing of the Constitution or the turning over of the Constitution. I think we need to fight the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel bias with everything that we can for the following reason: America will do it, because it’s good for America, not because it’s good for Israel. Standing for the right thing gives us credibility and respect throughout the rest of the world. We need to fight back against this because this is just another venue and platform where the only country of the Jews has been vilified because it is a country of the Jews. Anybody who says that “it’s anti-Zionism, it’s not anti-Semitism” is making stuff up. It is baloney, it is BS. The answer is that that is vile anti-Semitism, and we should use every tool that we can. Some tools will not work and these are thrown out, because they’re not constitutional. Let’s come up with new tools. But you fight this fight because the fight is moral, the fight is right, and the fight is a fight that must be won because if the United States of America does not fight this fight, nobody else will and anti-Semitism will once again become mainstream and accepted. 

For more of this interview, watch here.

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