On August 13, 2020, then-senior adviser to the US ambassador to Israel Aryeh Lightstone woke up in Washington earlier than usual, having had trouble sleeping because he was so excited. He arrived at the White House at around 7 a.m., the earliest he would be allowed in.
That day, “walking to the West Wing of the White House [was] a goosebump-inducing feeling, that I was having the privilege of going to work…for a meaningful experience.”
About a dozen members of the Trump administration gathered in then-senior adviser Jared Kushner’s office, abutting the Oval Office. They had a short time to put together the final pieces of peace and normalization between Israel and the United Arab Emirates before they went to then-president of the US Donald Trump for his phone call with the leaders of the other two nations. US Army Gen. Miguel Correa suggested the name Abraham Accords, after the father of all three monotheistic religions, and the group immediately loved it.
“What are the odds that a group of people were able to come out with the exact correct name without market testing?” Lightstone said, still amazed at Correa’s idea. “As soon as that name was said, ever name nodded with assent. It was unanimously approved by the leaders of all three countries within a minute… Being called Abraham Accords gave it historic proportions.”
They entered the Oval Office for Trump’s call with Emirati leader Mohammed bin Zayed and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“It was a conference call, without any screen. There was no script. They all just spoke and wanted to defer to each other, which is not a natural course of action for any head of state,” Lightstone recalled. “Then, when the president hung up the phone, it was a moment where it felt like time froze. [Then secretary of the treasury Steve] Mnuchin, who is not a very emotional guy, leapt from his chair to lead the room for a standing ovation…without any cameras there.
“The standing ovation was for the president, but even more for the cause that succeeded more than anyone involved had anticipated. It was genuine, not rehearsed. It was very cool to see people really excited about the result and not just the accolades. It had tremendous authenticity,” Lightstone said.
After the press came in and Trump made the announcement and then-ambassador to Israel David Friedman explained what happened, “the question was ‘now what?’” Lightstone, who was tasked with implementing the accords, said.
“’Now what?’ has been the question ever since,” he added.
Now what? What comes next after the Abraham Accords?
At the end of that August, an Israeli government delegation led by then-national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat took the first-ever direct flight from Israel to the UAE.
“We had our first flight. We had a standing ovation at takeoff. We landed and had a beautiful dinner and meetings and the press got to see the Louvre [in Abu Dhabi] and it was fantastic. I thought it was a great night,” Lightstone said. “Then, I was woken up at 2 a.m. by Jared who said, ‘we don’t have any agreements to sign,’ so we put together a banking agreement.”
Lightstone said the biggest shift in the Middle East from the Abraham Accords is that “the lexicon has changed. It’s not ‘will countries make peace with Israel;’ it’s when will countries make peace with Israel. We’re watching it in real-time, right now.”
“Israel has gone from a state isolated in its region to a state that plays a role with some of the most important countries in the region,” he said.
Three years on, Lightstone is still asking himself “Now what?”
Washington should be working to facilitate greater defense cooperation between Israel and the UAE and other countries that joined the Abraham Accords, Bahrain and Morocco. There was also Sudan, which is still dealing with its civil war and has not been able to bring its normalization with Israel to fruition, and Kosovo, which is often left off the list, but Lightstone insisted is an important part of the cohort.
The US needs to do a better job explaining why it supports the Abraham Accords in order to encourage more countries to join, Lightstone said.
“Countries in the region are worried about there being Republican and Democratic foreign policy. You only need to look at the Biden administration’s capitulation to Iran this week,” he lamented, referring to a prisoner exchange along with the thawing of $6b. funds to Iran that had been blocked by sanctions. “It’s not clear to countries today if the Abraham Accords were a big win for America or for Republicans. Until that is answered definitively, they will go to China where there is no variation in policies.”
When it comes to the ongoing negotiations between the US and Saudi Arabia about normalization with Israel, in conjunction with a defense pact of some kind between Washington and Riyadh, Lightstone had been bullish on the matter, but is concerned that the Biden administration has lost its way.
“Done correctly, Israel making peace with Saudi Arabia will be one of the most transformational moments of our lifetime,” Lightstone said. “People still remember the iconic photo of Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter, and [Anwar] Sadat; that was a moment that changed history. Nothing should diminish that moment, but I think the moment of Saudi Arabia and Israel is bigger and needs to be treated as bigger.”
“This is about transforming the region forever. A billion and a half Muslims face Saudi Arabia when they pray every day. When the Saudis recognize Israel, what does that do for the world? The potential is enormous,” he said.
However, “If it’s an agreement that seems more like a transaction, it will end up more like [Israel’s peace with] Jordan or Egypt than the Abraham Accords,” he warned.
The US sold F-35 fighter jets to the UAE soon after the Abraham Accords were signed, and Netanyahu also committed to freezing plans to apply sovereignty to Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria, but Lightstone said that those elements were not at the core of the agreement, where the US offered those things as sweeteners to convince Abu Dhabi to establish diplomatic relations with Jerusalem.
“The prospect of paying someone to become friends with America’s only democratic ally in the region cheapens the process. The idea of the Abraham Accords was that, if you want to level up your relations with the US, you should level up your relations with Israel, a democratic country from which we gain a tremendous amount from intelligence, defense and other cooperation,” Lightstone said.
“An agreement that sells the opportunity of Saudi-Israeli peace short requires very careful review,” he said.