WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has chosen the first leader of a US investment fund aimed at advancing Israeli-Arab peace: Denver native Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone, a senior adviser to David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel.
The Abraham Fund is an outgrowth of the recent normalization agreements between Israel and two Gulf Arab nations.
One of its first projects will be to modernize the checkpoints that West Bank Palestinians must traverse, which the agency claims will ease their travel.
Congressional Democrats are raising objections to Lightstone’s appointment, saying it represents an example of Trump “burrowing” political appointees into sensitive career positions before he leaves office.
Lightstone, 40, has a background in Jewish nonprofits, including the Orthodox Union and the National Council for Synagogue Youth. He is a former executive director of Shining Light, a US fundraising entity with ties to Israel’s right wing.
Lightstone is close to Trump’s Jewish circle of advisers. He officiated earlier this year at the wedding of Trump’s top immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, and Kate Waldman, an aide to Vice President Mike Pence, which took place at the Trump International Hotel.
Democrats say that Lightstone lacks the professional chops to work in development.
The Trump administration says that Lightstone, who has a business background and has been involved in the normalization of ties between Israel and three Arab countries, is the right person for the role.
A senior administration official said the job is to be a “rainmaker” attracting investments, and that a vast staff of economists and other experts will back him up.
The senior administration official denied that Lightstone, who will continue to function as a senior aide to the ambassador, would act in an ideological capacity in his new role.
“He’s an on-the-ground guy who gets things done,” the official said of Lightstone, who has a reputation as being personable and gregarious.
The official said Lightstone has been instrumental in getting US businesses to invest in joint ventures between Israel and other Middle Eastern countries.
Congressional Democrats find it troubling that the administration was attaching the fund to the government’s development bank, the US International Development Finance Corp., which they say must work without the taint of political or ideological affiliation in order to be effective in sometimes volatile lands.
“I don’t understand how border security or checkpoints would fall under the Development Finance Corp.,” a Senate aide said.
The DFC says on its website that it “partners with the private sector to finance solutions to the most critical challenges facing the developing world today.” Its investments, the authority says, “serve as stabilizing forces in developing countries around the world, including some of the world’s poorest countries and regions affected by conflict.”
Asked whether funding Israeli infrastructure in the West Bank was not inherently ideological, the Trump administration senior official said that the DFC has among its mandates that US policy and updating and improving the checkpoints comport with current US policy.
A senior administration official said that the checkpoint improvements were aimed at improving Palestinian lives — not, as Palestinians say, strengthening an infrastructure that reinforces the occupation.
“I have 200,000 Palestinians coming into Israel that are waiting on an average of two to three hours every day at checkpoints,” the official said. “If I can upgrade that, which doesn’t cost a lot of money, and have it take 30 seconds, I am blowing up 400,000 work hours a day.”
In the new role, Lightstone would be based in Israel. Aside from the checkpoint improvement plan, the Abraham Fund is, according to congressional staffers briefed on the fund, seeking investors for Israel’s natural gas exploration.
The Trump administration official said Israel had informal ties with many of the targeted countries and that future projects would target developing countries.