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IJN exclusive: Aryeh Lightstone, former senior advisor in Jerusalem embassy, speaks

How does a Jewish boy from Denver go on to become one of the most powerful, if underrated, influencers of US Mideast policy? Who was the right-hand man of a primary architect of Middle East peace, the former US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman? Who put together the last-minute advance trip to Bahrain that expanded the Abraham Accords? Who facilitated the right to fly over Saudi air space in a single night, in the middle of the night? Who conducted delicate diplomatic discussions in Israel, the Arab world and Africa, meeting world leaders face-to-face — with concrete results?

Meet Aryeh Lightstone.

Aryeh Lightstone, left, in conversation with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former Amb. David Friedman, March 21, 2019. (Matty Stern/US Embassy)

This is the first full length interview he has given to American media since assuming the role of senior advisor to Ambassador Friedman four years ago.

Given the wide-ranging discussion we ultimately had, taking us behind the scenes of the Jerusalem Embassy move, the Abraham Accords, the creation of a network of female, mostly Arab entrepreneurs — and their timing — and his personal perspectives as a husband, father and rabbi whose life became unpredictable, the interview was well worth the wait.

People may wonder what Lightstone’s role has been in the various US-Mideast policy achieve- ments during the Trump administration. Given that his prior professional experience was primarily in the sphere of Jewish nonprofits and education, perhaps the least clear aspect of his involvement is how he ended up in this position to begin with.

His answer is unequivocal: WAR. No, not the armed conflict variety, but the baseball variety — Wins Above Replacement.

For the uninitiated, WAR is a modern statistic in baseball designed to reflect not a player’s raw numbers, but the relative value of his performance as compared to other players. To the extent that a player is considered better than the statistically average player, his WAR will be correspondingly higher.

Ultimately, Lightstone traces this mentality back to his childhood growing up on Denver’s East Side, when the Orthodox community there was small. Attending small schools, Herzl Jewish Day School and Rocky Mountain Hebrew Academy (later Denver JDS), and a small synagogue, EDOS, drilled into him the idea that he matters.

He recalls that if people wanted a shabbaton or a ski trip, they had to make it happen. If he wanted to chant the Torah, the opportunity was there.

In the bigger picture, basic communal structures such as schools and mikvehs had to be built and what the teens “didn’t do ourselves, we all saw our parents do it, and at an enormous personal sacrifice. Everyone made a unique contribution to move the community forward.”

Lightstone’s father, Dr. Philip Lightstone, was president of both Herzl and DAT; his mother Janet was president of DAT; his uncle, Haim Makovsky, made aliyah as a youth, and his uncle and aunt Evan and Evi Makovsky headed countless Zionist and other efforts in the community. They and others, such as his grandparents Frieda Makovsky Englard and Fred Englard, set the stage for Aryeh Lighstone’s commitments.

Coming back to the WAR reference, Lightstone says, “I have tried to position myself, whenever possible, so I can uniquely do something” that otherwise isn’t happening.

THE AMBASSADOR

In that vein, Lightstone left his first position as director of New York NCSY, a Jewish youth organization, to advance education technology and blended learning models because he saw the day school system falling apart amid rising tuition costs.

Reflecting on this in the wake of COVID-19, it’s even clearer that day schools would have benefitted from greater integration of education technology.

The reason Lightstone left that line of work was “not because I had any experience in politics but because the Iran deal threatened the very fabric of the United States of America and our ally Israel. I felt that it was very important that if I could do something, do it.”

The political experience he gained in the following two years enabled him to help advocate for David Friedman’s confirmation following his appointment as US Ambassador to Israel. Along the way, Friedman asked Lightstone to come along as senior advisor.

Lightstone speaks of Friedman in glowing terms, well beyond the natural exaggeration one might use to please his boss.

It turns out they have known each other since Lightstone was at NCSY, which was one of the sources of Friedman’s philanthropy.

“He would never identify himself as a bankruptcy attorney, as the news pegs him,” says Lightstone.

One senses his frustration at the monochromatic descriptions he and his colleagues have been subject to.

“A much better description of him would be a community leader who happens to have a job that funds his ability to be a community leader.

“In my decade of knowing Friedman prior to being senior adviser to the ambassador, not once did we sit down and listen to the stories of his cases, which are fascinating. The questions he asked were:

“‘How do we get kids more involved with their self-esteem? How do we bring more teens to Israel? How do we strengthen social action and chesed in the community? How do we take mediocre schools and make them good, and good schools and make them great?’

“None of these things were his job, but they were all his passion.”

That these are the items that left an impression on Lightstone’s memory speaks directly to the values that carry him as well.

Ambassador Friedman was the one who made the headlines over the last few years, but what was Lightstone’s role as his senior advisor? A sharp contrast appears between the job description and what it actually entailed. Technically, Lightstone was responsible for such things as making sure papers were in order to process visas, but in practice, there was never a dull moment to be had.

“There never was a single regular day. Whether it’s intelligence or defense or economy or tourism — or, in this last year, life sciences, vaccine research and repatriation of citizens — the depth and breadth of the US-Israel relationship is vast and the wheels of our two countries touch each other incredibly closely and with tremendous frequency.”

One of the primary pillars of US-Israel foreign policy Lightstone worked on during so-called regular days was giving greater priority to American companies and American jobs.

“Israel says at every opportunity that she has no greater friend than America and America has no greater friend than Israel, and our response is, ‘Great, so buy American!’ The director-generals of every ministry in Israel have learned two things over the last four years.

“One, they now prioritize buying Israel first, as they should; and after that, they look strongly at American projects, companies and partners, and actively pursue them.”

THE EMBASSY MOVE TO JERUSALEM

While the Trump administration took many steps toward stronger US-Israel ties, perhaps the greatest move was only 42 miles, the transfer of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Not much legislation or legal movement was needed to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel as the law had been on the books since 1995. In essence, it just needed a new perspective — so, who was the primary person to put forth that perspective?

“Ambassador Friedman is certainly one of the heroes,” is Lightstone’s first response, “but this decision, like every significant decision, was President Trump’s decision.

“His advisors were not of one voice regarding the Jerusalem embassy decision, but the president made the final decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”

When pressed on where the difference of opinion lay amongst the advisors — who needed to persuade whom — Lightstone refers to a future memoir of Ambassador Friedman, which will likely prove to be must read material. “Ambassador Friedman is going to write a book discussing this. I was running our embassy while Ambassador Friedman was in Washington, DC having those conversations, so I’ll let him tell that story. Good story.”

It’s not hard to detect Lightstone’s deep sense of pride in orchestrating the embassy’s opening ceremony.

“I wound up doing the vast majority of the logistical and programmatical aspects of it. This was probably the most popular event that happened in Israel in my lifetime based upon the number of attendees and the millions of people to whom it was televised. It was programmed to happen at 4 p.m., 70 years to the minute of David Ben Gurion proclaiming the state of Israel, and 11 minutes later when Harry S Truman recognized the State of Israel.

“We felt this was an appropriate way to culminate what’s been an error of the US government in not allowing Israel to choose its own capital.

“Opening up that embassy was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.”

A significant regret that Lightstone had about the opening ceremony was its lack of bipartisanship, despite the ambassador’s reaching out to many Democratic elected representatives, an elusive goal whose value is echoed in later parts of the interview as well.

“Although,” he is quick to add, “many (Democratic representatives) have come to visit since, which is great because it’s their embassy. The best part of an embassy is that it doesn’t belong to the Republicans or the Democrats; it belongs to you if you’re American.”

Lightstone was the senior advisor to the ambassador but he’s also a son, husband and father, family roles which he treasures greatly. He felt greatly privileged to bring his parents, wife and kids to the ceremony, and “it’s not often that kids know that they are part of history,” he notes.

Beyond national pride, Lightstone feels personal gratification to have been a part of opening the new embassy, with his family by his side.

“To this day, when reminiscing about the bus ride up to the embassy opening . . . my kids’ descriptions are just magical.

“It’s already been three years, my kids are still little, and yet they talk about it as something that they’re ready to tell their kids about from a historic perspective.

“As for me, it still gives me goosebumps knowing that I was blessed with the opportunity to play a small role in pulling off that event.”

NOT BILLIONS, NOT YEARS, BUT HALF A MILLION IN FIVE MONTHS

Lightstone assigns primary importance not to the recognition of Jerusalem, but to the opening up of the embassy there within six months of the declaration.

“In this region, talk is cheap. Action is what’s valued.

“The recognition on its own would have made for some interesting news stories for a week, but opening up the embassy in a meaningful way in Jerusalem so quickly afterward demonstrated that this administration was one of action, not talk.”

The credit for this, says Lightstone, goes to Friedman, who, in contradistinction to other plans for building an embassy which “projected the cost at a billion dollars over the course of many years, came forth and said, I can get this done in five months for less than half a million dollars. And by golly, he delivered on that.”

The critical import of this message of action is not limited just to Israel and its surrounding neighbors, Lightstone says.

“It’s important to note that the bang for the buck on opening the embassy was not felt just in Jerusalem or Washington, DC, Denver or Boise.

“It was felt in North Korea and in Tehran. And it was felt in Manama, Bahrain and in the UAE. This was a strong message in terms of what it means to stand with our allies, and not having done this previously sent an equally strong message.”

THE ABRAHAM ACCORDS

As for the Abraham Accords, although Lightstone does not comment outright, it does not seem that they were even being considered back in 2017, and it does seem that the embassy move helped pave the way for that far-fetched dream to materialize.

Lightstone is quick to assign credit for the Abraham Accords to a broad team, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Ambassador Friedman, Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz.

No doubt most people were shocked — in a good way, to be sure — by the sudden announcement of peace between Israel and the UAE on August 13, 2020. Not prospective peace or rumors of an upcoming agreement, but peace itself.

To Lightstone, this speaks to “both the leadership of the three countries, but also the core teams that were able to work together successfully to bring the accords to that point.”

What was the secret? What was the difference between countless other international affairs which end up in the media long before they’re official? Lightstone maintains that each country “chose very specific people for this very specific job, and in all three countries those people were not looking to get ahead by leaking something to demonstrate how great they were. They were looking to propel the best interest of their countries; and, in this case, the interests of all three countries aligned beautifully.

“In doing so, everybody involved felt they were involved with something far greater than themselves. And when you have that sense of purpose, the very concept of leaking is beneath one’s dignity.”

COILED SPRING

It would be reasonable to assume the role of the US was that of a negotiator or mediator, but Lightstone prefers the term facilitator. He says there weren’t points of friction to be resolved but, rather, there was facilitation to figure out the best way to approach various conversations.

To a degree, it seems like the accords were a no-brainer to Lightstone, who describes the UAE, Bahrain and Israel as a coiled spring ready to be unleashed.

“If you look at the Middle East over the past few decades, where else have you seen greater modernization and greater opportunities for their people? It’s only natural that these countries be able to work together.”

He adds an important point for Israel-oriented people to consider: “Those who only follow the US-Israel relationship assume that Israel is our only meaningful ally in the region. It’s most certainly not true. They’re all close allies of ours.

“We felt strongly that their interests and American interests would be better served if they could work more closely together. So the Abraham Accords doesn’t only make those countries more secure and prosperous; it makes the region around them more secure and, in turn, makes America more secure and prosperous.”

ULTIMATE OPPORTUNITY

It was in the aftermath of the initial agreement that Lightstone’s ultimate opportunity came. Going back to the motto of action speaks louder than words, Jared Kushner said, “The agreement is nice, but we gotta move, and we gotta move quick. Aryeh, you’re in that time zone — go get it done.”

Aryeh Lightstone with the chief of staff of the armed forces of Sudan.

So the team came up with an extensive list of items that needed to be tackled — first flights, first delegation visits, first visas, memoranda of understanding for investment protection, and more.

“The list kept getting longer and longer,” Lightstone reflects, “and our goal was for the list to never be done. Check stuff off, add something else on.”

He invokes the Talmudic principle of “mitzvah goreret mitzvah” (a good deed begets another good deed) as an allusion to the role that momentum played in the unfolding of the Abraham Accords.

“Speaking about the inaugural flight to Abu Dhabi, Lightstone says, “We were greeted royally and treated royally the entire time. There was a motorcade the likes of which I’ve never seen — and I’ve been in a lot of really nice motorcades.

“And the move by the Emiratis was, ‘Let’s get stuff done!’ so much so that we stayed up the entire night to finalize two agreements despite having no intention of actually signing anything on that first visit.”

In Lightstone’s analysis, this was another example of the “action over speech” philosophy of the Middle East and played an instrumental role in driving Bahrain over the goal line.

Lightstone also invokes the flip-side of the above-quoted Talmudic dictum, “aveirah goreret aveirah” (a bad deed begets another bad deed), in illustrating the various obstacles that presented themselves, not least of which was differing COVID-19 protocols.

Lightstone humorously says, “There are officers in our embassies in Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco and the UAE who I think get nervous every time their phone buzzes that it’s Lightstone saying, ‘I’m coming tomorrow with delegation X, and I need you to talk about A, B or C.’”

For an example of what he’s referring to, nothing says it better than Lightstone’s own words in the following story.

“We were working with Bahrain on what the first visit would be like and things weren’t taking shape. It was very troubling because, again, every misstep is a good reason for everybody to go back to their own corner.

“So I spoke to my Israeli colleagues and I spoke to my American colleagues in Bahrain and I said, ‘We’ve got to do an advance trip.’ They’re like, ‘When can you do it?’ I looked at my calendar, I looked at their calendar and I’m like, “Tomorrow morning.’They’re like, It’s 11 o’clock at night. How do we get Saudi overflight?’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll get it. Get me a plane and we’re going to go.

“We chartered a plane at 11 o’clock at night. It took me all night, but we got the flight path approved.

“We got on a plane at 8 o’clock the next morning and by 10 o’clock the next morning, we’re sitting in Bahrain, having a real meeting discussing what normalization is going to look like.

“And it’s the fruits of that meeting that have led to an extremely successful rollout of normalization between Bahrain and Israel.

“It was just because I didn’t go to sleep (and pushed it forward). When my wife went to sleep that night at 10:30 p.m., she said, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’ I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m working from Jerusalem, so I’ll see you at home for dinner.’ And you know, I woke her up at six in the morning and said, ‘I got to go to Bahrain this morning, sweetheart.’ She’s like, ‘Going where?!’

“And the same thing happened with Sudan, you know, mysterious trips in and out of Sudan in order to get stuff done.

“Because sometimes you’ve got to see somebody, you gotta shake their hand, you gotta look them in the eye. You gotta understand what they really want.

“And here we’re talking about culture, language, and other barriers such that having this conversation over Zoom, or over the phone, ain’t gonna bring normalization. So you’ve got to be opportunistic when you can, and it became my job to put these countries together.”

IT COULD HELP THE PALESTINIANS

As wonderful an idea as the Abraham Accords may seem now, there’s a reason the world was shocked by the initial phone call on August 13. These agreements were never on the table in the previous seven decades of Israel’s existence, so what changed? What prior tensions need to be addressed?

Lightstone posits that when the US stood unequivocally with Israel, it gave freedom of movement for other countries to be able to advance their relationships.

Alongside that, he suggests that President Trump’s vision for peace — both its economic rollout in Bahrain in June, 2019 and its full rollout one year ago — played a significant role.

While some have taken the Abraham Accords to demonstrate that Israeli-Palestinian peace is not a prerequisite to broader regional peace agreements, Lightstone takes it a step further. He argues that the Palestinians’ behavior itself helped serve as a catalyst for the Abraham Accords.

“We’ve been very supportive of the Palestinians for many, many years, economically and otherwise. In return, we have not received very much.

“We feel that having a realistic plan turned down so vigorously showed other people in the region that perhaps the veto the Palestinians have (had) over other countries’ involvement with Israel was not enabling peace, but perhaps was in and of itself preventing peace.”

With that kind of rejection fresh in one’s memory, one might expect a rather pessimistic evaluation of the Palestinian cause, but Lightstone believes strongly that its future can be bright. In his view, Palestinians will eventually be beneficiaries of the Abraham Accords and its associated economic plan.

He notes that they could have led the charge to normalization or at least chosen to follow by now, but regardless, “movement to normalization is moving and that momentum is going to yield additional momentum.

“There are greater opportunities for Palestinians today than there were yesterday, and there will be more for them tomorrow than there are today.

“I’m excited for them in the long run; in the short-haul, I don’t think their leadership has done them justice, unfortunately.”

QUALITATIVE MILITARY EDGE

There has been a pretty broad consensus of support for the Abraham Accords, but it hasn’t come without any criticism. Bipartisan voices question whether selling advanced warplanes to the UAE undermines America’s commitment to Israel is qualitative military edge (QME) in the Middle East. Lightstone, however, isn’t inclined to give that argument credence. “Something that should be exceedingly clear to your readership is that the QME committed by the US to Israel in broad bipartisan fashion is not subjective. It’s the law and we’ll follow that law in order to maintain that QME.

“There is no arms sale condition as part of the agreement [the Abraham Accords]. There is an opportunity when countries become closer with our top ally in the region — in this case, the State of Israel — that they get to re-evaluate where they are in their security relationship with the US as well. That’s separate and independent of the Abraham Accords.

It happens to be that joining the Abraham Accords has changed the evaluation of those countries in the eyes of the US, but never once in any of the conversations, with Israel or other countries, has anybody insinuated or implied or tried to have that QME violated. It’s a straw man argument.”

Another question revolves around the fact that the UAE and Bahrain continue to vote against Israel at the UN. How does that square with the supposed normalization?

Lightstone makes several points in this regard, the first being that votes in the UN General Assembly do not have much impact and that even many countries that are allied with America and Israel still sometimes vote against Israel.

The second point is that just because there’s normalization doesn’t mean the countries will agree with everything the other country does.

Last, he analogizes to relationships in general, reminding us that “the countries are just getting to know each other. These relationships are going to blossom and as they blossom, there will be parts they love and promote, even as there are parts they are not fans of, like with any relationship.”

Was the timing of any achievement orchestrated (the Golan Heights recognized on Purim), or did one achievement influence the timing of others’?

He responds that he was asked a lot whether they were going to pull out a peace deal right before election day, but says, “You can’t time good policy. You just have to push good policy.”

He takes the opportunity to extol what he believes to be the bipartisan value of peace. “Peace is not a political issue and doesn’t belong to one party or one religion. It belongs to mankind. Peace is a value that every American supports. Peace changes the world for the better! How often do you have that chance?”

As for the Golan Heights, divinely ordained or not, it was simply a matter of working around Secretary of State Pompeo’s schedule.

ABRAHAM FUND

In the wake of the Abraham Accords, Lightstone was tapped to head the Abraham Fund. What exactly is this position and what does it entail?

The Abraham Fund is an outgrowth of a general fund termed the Development Finance Corporation authorized by Congress in 2018 as the US’ financial arm to promote foreign policy. Lightstone says, “You don’t need to have followed foreign policy all that closely to realize that we’ve got adversaries who use their wallet extremely successfully to wield influence.”

Lightstone with participants in the United Women’s Economic Development Network.

The Abraham Fund carries three requirements:

1. to promote US foreign policy;

2. to return the money invested to taxpayers;

3. to help developed countries move from being charity recipients to developing into net givers in the economic circle.

The Abraham Fund draws on the larger fund to support projects specifically in the Abraham Accords countries.

Lightstone emphasizes that it is not a charity fund, but an investment fund, such that any returns on supported projects come back to the US and its taxpayers.

In the bigger picture, the idea is to strengthen America’s allies abroad such that they are in less need of direct aid. There is a peace dividend and an economic dividend. As Lightstone puts it, part of economic normalization is extremely boring, ensuring that proper legislation, tax agreements and MOUs are in place, but the opportunities are extremely exciting, having already cut hundreds of millions of dollars worth in deals.

A related, little-known recent development is that Lightstone headed the formation of the United Women’s Economic Development Network.

This initiative grew out of the first Abraham Accords business summit, held in October in Abu Dhabi.

A Muslim woman turned to Lightstone and said female entrepreneurship is on the ascendancy in this region, but it is still quite different to be a female business leader in this part of the world than in other parts of the world.

Lightstone returned from the summit and within days this new network was launched with a virtual conference of Middle Eastern — mostly Arab — female entrepreneurs.

Lightstone likes to frame this through the business lens of looking for trends and capitalizing on them.

“Right now, I’d be betting on the Middle East, or certainly the Abraham Accords countries, and I’d be betting on women entrepreneurship and leadership in those countries.

“When you can see these two trends merging into one, that’s not an incremental opportunity, but an exponential opportunity. We’re very excited to do what we can to propel them forward.”

CONFIDENT IN THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION

Ultimately, after squeezing what seems to be many years’ worth of accomplishments into the last few months, Lightstone resigned all of his positions with the transition to the Biden administration.

Contrary to reports expressing dismay that his appointment as head of the Abraham Fund was a case of “burrowing” in a partisan appointee into a career position, his appointments were never of such a nature, he says. Now that these opportunities are out of his direct control, what are his thoughts about their future direction under the Biden administration?

Lightstone returns to his desire for greater bipartisanship, or perhaps what might be termed “above-partisanship.” About the women’s economic network, for example, Lightstone asserts, “The timing is always right for women’s empowerment and leadership, especially when it has to do with the added value of peace.

“If the right time was on January 20 at 11 a.m. or at 4 p.m., the timing shouldn’t matter.

“This is the least political thing that I think I’ve ever had the privilege of being involved with.

“Not once did any of the women from any of the countries call and ask, do I work for President Trump or President-elect Biden — they knew that soon some of the people from the US weren’t going to be there in the same capacity, but they didn’t care. They said, ‘you can get us together as a network to support each other.’

“I am 100% confident that my colleagues at the State Department will carry this ball forward because when they speak to these women, as they already have prior to the conference, they will be as moved by the opportunity as I am.

“As for theoretical changes? It would be difficult to argue against peace. Are there better ways to achieve peace? I’m sure there can be. But I hope that whoever isn’t excited about Program A truly believes that Program B will grant a better return to our taxpayers and a more effective way to effectuate peace.

“But before you start looking at canceling any specific program involving the Abraham Accords, I think one has to realize that this might be the single greatest investment the United States of America has ever made in the Middle East.

“First, every investment that we’ve made is not a grant. It is a return on our equity to our taxpayers, to the Treasury.

“Second, we’ve traditionally looked at the Middle East as a place that we have to give with very little, if no, return. This has changed that entire paradigm, as it has pivoted the Middle East from a source of problems to a place that can be a source of solutions. I would look at Congress to invest heavily in this, in the right way. They can decide what the right way is. I would encourage them to look at this with enthusiasm.”

CRITICISM

Lightstone and his colleagues have been the recipients of  criticism. Overall, it doesn’t seem to affect Lightstone too much, as he proceeds to provide a laundry list of tasks that might occupy him on a given day, concluding that if “you wake up in the morning and have a to-do list which you know is the right thing to do, then you go do your job.”

After mentioning examples such as moving the Space X shuttle to America in the middle of a lockdown, getting banks in Morocco and Israel to talk, or just the “basic” getting an emergency passport for a cancer patient, Lightstone says, “I don’t view any of those decisions as right-wing or left-wing, up-wing or down-wing.

“The last four years have been some of the most enjoyable four years of my life, in that I haven’t been involved with politics. I’ve been involved purely in policy.

“If people want to disagree with policy, they’re perfectly entitled to. We don’t have a monopoly on good policy decisions.

“I’d like to argue that the results in this case (the Abraham Accords) speak for themselves in terms of making quality policy and executing on them.

“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.”

This topic lights a fire under Lightstone, and he goes on to share his beliefs on the proper course of policy-making and on managing political division.

“What I’d like to see is people disagree on policies and less about other people. Let’s respect each other as Americans. We can disagree on policies, but that shouldn’t determine whether you and I can have dinner together or watch the Broncos together.

“We should be able to do all of those things while disagreeing respectfully, whether it’s regarding healthcare, net neutrality or the Iran deal.

“I have very strong feelings on all of those policies. But I don’t feel in any way, shape or form that somebody’s feelings of those policies affect my feelings of that person. These are two separate things and we can all be grown up enough to figure that out.”

LISTEN, DON’T TALK

Asked to share one criticism that he felt had merit, Lightstone goes back to the beginning of his tenure.

Concerned that the State Department professionals might try to undermine his and Ambassador Friedman’s mission, he was focused on coming in strong and looking to set the agenda right away. Someone told him, “Maybe instead of talking in the beginning, you should be quiet and listen. You’ve never been a diplomat for a single day.”

Lightstone’s retrospective on that?

“It was the best piece of advice I ever received. I met some of the most qualified, humble, hardworking professionals I’ve ever had the privilege of working with throughout my professional career.

“That brilliant criticism probably changed my entire experience here. I have learned from and become a better person because of my experiences with many of the people here.”

Were there any criticisms he believed were particularly unfair? He doesn’t hesitate.

“A criticism I’ve taken is being a relentless shill for the right-wing of the State of Israel. That’s completely and totally unfounded.”

Lightstone describes extensive efforts he’s expended toward developing economic empowerment for the disenfranchised communities of Israel, be they Ethiopian or Israeli Arab, as well as developing the economic plan for the people of Gaza and other Palestinians.

Some examples include what he describes as the single-most successful business conference for the Israeli Arab community of Nazareth and advancing small business opportunities in East Jerusalem.

He sums up his take as follows:

“The critique that somehow I’m only concerned with the right wing of Israel is people looking to be superficial, which is disappointing. I think people will see the substance here and see that’s not the case.”

POLICY, NOT PERSON

Lightstone’s position as a political appointment has been criticized in light of his involvement with Shining City, a 501(c)4 issue-based advocacy group.

Some criticism is rooted in ethics issues stemming from continued financial ties with the organization, while other criticism is ideological, concerned that the group represents positions too extreme for political appointees to be associated with.

Lightstone has declared to the State Dept. that he maintains no financial ties with it, and focuses here on the ideological component.

“We advocate for issues. If people don’t like those issues or don’t like the concept of a 501(c)4, that’s fine.”

Lightstone then pivots back to his dichotomy of differentiating between people’s inherent value and their policy beliefs.

“I welcome a policy conversation every day, but to insinuate that somebody has done something wrong because you disagree with them is insulting. If you support the Iran deal you’re not evil, and if you’re against the Iran deal you’re not evil.”

But even talking about that misses the point, he insists.

“Let’s stop talking about people and their opinions altogether and let’s start talking about the idea. Is the Iran deal good for America or is it not? We’re not talking about small things; we’re talking about big ideas that have a chance to change the course of history. If you can’t win on policy and have to attack the person instead, it’s beneath the dignity of the conversation and it means we’ve lost track of what we actually need to talk about.”

SUPPORT FROM HOME

Lightstone takes great pride in his role as a father, but uprooting one’s family to a foreign country all of a sudden cannot be easy for any kid. As a recent immigrant myself, I was particularly curious to hear what the impact of the move was on his family. The five-word answer that says it all is, “My wife (Estee) is a superstar.”

The commentary on that answer is, “None of this could have been possible without her putting her career on hold and investing full-time in the development of our single greatest asset: our children.

“We moved at a time we had not intended to move and it demanded an enormous investment from Estee, but seeing the kids today, I think we see the dividends paying off on a daily basis. The kids are bilingual, they’re succeeding in school, have friends they enjoy spending time with, and are fully acclimated to the Israeli lifestyle.

“We’ve even got a kid who refuses to wear shoes! There’s an embracing of this experience that has made them into greater and better people because of it.”

As for how his kids handle being in the spotlight among their friends at times, the surprising but heartening answer is that they never throw around, “Guess who we got to see last night?” or other similar comments.

The cute exception is the three-year-old, who unfailingly insists on bringing to day care any memento Lightstone brings back from his diplomatic missions.

More surprising, though, is Lightstone’s estimation that his other kids’ teachers and friends don’t know what he does. It’d probably be a miracle if that were true but, it wouldn’t be the first time a parent wasn’t aware of the full extent of their adolescents’ social relationships.

There’s no doubt that being a diplomat keeps one away from home more than is ideal, especially when historic achievements are being pursued. This was certainly true for Lightstone, with the most blatant example being when he had to miss the holiday of Purim — probably most kids’ favorite holiday — because Sec. of State Pompeo was in the country to recognize the Golan Heights.

As for what counters that, he points to the last two Chanukahs and the embassy opening in Jerusalem.

Last Chanukah, the whole family had a Chanukah dinner with Miriam and the late Sheldon Adelson, who invested in their 11-year old’s lemonade stand.

After the embassy opening, his daughter got to spend time with Ivanka Trump.

This Chanukah, they all flew to Dubai where they were feted by Lightstone’s newfound friends in the country.

One gets the sense that the Lightstone family has expanded to include the people he works closely with. Estee relates a funny yet moving story that occurred during a recent meeting with the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. Lightstone’s father, Dr. Philip Lightstone, was celebrating a milestone birthday that day, and Lightstone kept checking his watch during the meeting, so Netanyahu’s chief of staff asked if he had anywhere better to be. Lightstone explained he was trying to catch his father for his birthday, so the Prime Minister asked to do a birthday video; then Ambassador Friedman asked, then Jared Kushner and the rest of the team asked.

Whereas many parents travel for business frequently, kids often don’t grasp the relatively abstract things that take away their parents’ time. Here, Lightstone points out, “They realize that all these things happened because when Abba (Dad) missed X and Y, he was working on Z. These are experiences they still treasure a year or two later and will always remember.”

Perhaps more important than all that, though, was the consistency of Lightstone being home virtually every Shabbat, fully available to spend time with family (aside from catching up on sleep that is).

RELIGION

Shabbat

Speaking of Shabbat, perhaps the most unusual aspect Lightstone brings to his role as senior advisor in general, and as a facilitator of the Abraham Accords in particular, is that he is an ordained Orthodox rabbi.

Among other things, this means he is fully Sabbath-observant, which undoubtedly presents consistent conflict with the typical demands of an international diplomat. Nonetheless, he indicates that he receives full respect and significant accommodation for his religious beliefs.

Aryeh and Estee Lightstone fly over the Golan Heights in 2019.

“My colleagues know Shabbat. They’ll call when I need to pick up, and they definitely will not call when I don’t need to pick up. Washington oftentimes would wait until one minute after Shabbat to place a certain call.”

Interestingly, the conflict almost never came on Saturdays but on Fridays, when Lightstone’s Sabbath sometimes began in Israel before the workday had barely begun in America.

So what are those areas deemed necessary for Lightstone to pick up, even on his Sabbath? “Health, safety and security.”

Kippah

Lightstone goes on to share some illuminating thoughts through the prism of his kippah.

“I wear my kippah everywhere I go. I was curious whether that would be a hindrance to my job performance in the embassy, but I was really petrified when I got on the first plane to Abu Dhabi and didn’t know how that would be accepted or received.

“And I have to tell you, I’m embarrassed I thought that way. I’ve been greeted with greater dignity and sensitivity than I could’ve ever imagined.”

Lightstone feels strongly that this goes beyond professionalism from the Abraham Accord countries, but reflects an appreciation of the American and Jewish people.

He shares some other anecdotes in this regard, such as how Bahrain opened up a synagogue in 2019 for Jason Greenblatt (former US envoy for international negotiations) for the first time in decades.

What truly showed it is that the UAE made an entire hotel kosher and Bahrain instituted that kosher food be available on-demand at multiple hotels, and this did not reflect the demands of the market — it would be months before flights were initiated and they knew that even after that, travel and tourism would remain severely limited for a while due to COVID-19.

“It’s beyond sensitivity,” says Lightstone, “It’s love. Truly, when it’s called the Abraham Accords, this is the reuniting of cousins who perhaps never should have been separated.”

Clean Speech

As anyone who followed the mission of Clean Speech Colorado is aware, Judaism places significant value on one’s speech. Ostensibly, an Orthodox Jew as committed to the laws governing speech as to the laws of Shabbat will feel some internal conflict regarding President Trump’s manner of speaking about others, however much one might admire Trump’s policies and achievements.

Does Lightstone feel any such conflict?

Is it further complicated by Trump being his boss’ boss?

“I have tried to elevate the conversation wherever possible,” Lightstone responds, “and I’ve never really responded when somebody is attacking me. I’ve never felt it merits that response.”

He adds a caveat referencing Trump, though, that “I’m not personally attacked by the vast majority of the free world, so I don’t have that burden or challenge or responsibility. Is that an excuse, though? No. When you become the leader of the free world, you sort of throw away your excuses.”

Entrepreneurial spirit

Was Lightstone’s background in experiential Jewish education and blended technology relevant during his time working for the embassy? Or was it just a pivot to something different, demanding a new skill set?

“I don’t think anybody can separate what they’ve done beforehand” is Lightstone’s response.

“Ambassador Friedman is a great deal guy, because he was a great deal guy for 35 years. I’m not making real estate or bankruptcy analogous to Middle East peace, but understanding deals is understanding people.”

Lightstone’s prior professional work also centered around understanding people, albeit in different ways, and he sees the creativity which was central to his prior professions as central to his work for the embassy as well.

“Experiential education, organizational management and being an entrepreneur are not necessarily a clean fit with government work most of the time.

“But I think you’ll see that the implementation of the Abraham Accords required an entrepreneurial spirit and has been well-founded in this particular case. I was able to scratch that entrepreneurial itch with the opening up of the embassy and I was able to scratch it at the Nazareth conference.

“But to put it into full bore — when the initial US-Israel-UAE phone call happened on August 13, there was nobody more excited than me about trying to figure out how to make every one of those touch points count.

“This was something that had never been done before, and if it’s never been done before, you need an entrepreneur.”

JANUARY 6

Having this interview delayed had its drawbacks, but one question that could not have been asked in December was what his views are on the events of January 6. Generally an enthusiastic and spirited personality, an atypical resignedness becomes immediately apparent.

“Disappointment, just disappointment,” is the initial reply. “I don’t see that there should ever be a reason for violence at all, certainly not in the United States of America. Rules are there for a reason and rules should be followed.

“The environment that led to the violence and the rioting was reprehensible and shouldn’t have been there, and all violence needs to be condemned. Full stop.”

While some believe that January 6 will become the defining moment of Trump’s presidency, Lightstone does not. He believes the events of January 6 will negatively impact us in the short term and medium term, but in the long term he does not believe it will overshadow the prior accomplishments of the Trump administration, the Abraham Accords being one of them.

As evidence to the short-term historical perspective that often pervades daily discourse, he points to the examples of George Bush and Mitt Romney. Lightstone comments how the majority of the media negatively portrayed Bush at the end of his presidency and how Romney was similarly maligned during his 2012 presidential campaign, on the one hand, and how they’ve been lauded by the very same media now that they’ve become critics of Donald Trump, on the other hand.

“The intellectual dishonesty with the vast majority of the media is disgraceful. Local, economically independent newspapers should increasingly be the media people look to support because the idea of big national media and their monopolies mess things up.”

WHAT’S NEXT

With the “opportunity of my lifetime” now in the rearview mirror, what’s next for Lightstone? There’s not too many clear answers forthcoming, as he says that is just beginning to be explored now. While many people would typically start looking into next steps once in the lame-duck period leading up to the next president’s inauguration, Lightstone chose not to.

“I’m going to forever appreciate the opportunity I had to help bring peace to the region, and I certainly wasn’t going to spend a minute of that opportunity working on anything else.

“You can ask anybody working in the region — I was working to advance the causes of peace and economic normalization until 6:55 p.m. Israel time on January 20 (five minutes before the Trump presidency concluded).”

I can credit that bold statement because it took nearly two months from the time Lightstone agreed to this interview until it actually happened, at the very end of his tenure. At one point in mid-December, surmising that he still harbored some of the hesitations which led him to steer clear of the media the previous three years, I invited him to share any hesitations he might have. His response? “No hesitations. Just extremely busy.”

Just like there was an adjustment upon moving to Israel, there will be an adjustment upon moving out of the embassy’s jurisdiction.

To hear Estee reflect on that, “Living under the umbrella of the US Embassy was strange and exciting when it first started, but like anything else, we have gotten used to it, and the adjustment to ‘real life’ isn’t going to be fun.

“I have acknowledged the entire time (and been reminded by all my Israeli friends) that the way we have been living is totally not a reality of what it is like to live in Israel. We will have to figure out the local healthcare, bureaucracy and give up our diplomatic license plates.

“We have been so blessed. Now, it’s time for some semblance of real life in Israel.”

Whatever it will be, Lightstone asserts that he’s looking to stay involved with the US, Israel and the Middle East, using what he’s learned to continue to help bring positive change and improvement across the region.

One other important thing is on the docket as well: “I cannot wait to come back to Denver, to see my family and friends, and the community which was such a big part of making me into who I’ve been able to become.

“We’re excited for our vaccinations and to be able to come together as a family soon, certainly before the Broncos win their next Super Bowl in 2022.”

I am inclined to advise the former diplomat to stick to predictions involving the Middle East after that fantastical statement, but then again, no one saw Israel-Sudanese peace coming either. So maybe, just maybe, we can look forward to the Lombardi trophy coming back to Colorado in a year?

Chaim M. Goldberg, recently ordained as a rabbi at Yeshiva University, is a graduate student in child clinical educational psychology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Copyright © 2021 by the Intermountain Jewish News




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