Meet Aryeh Lightstone, behind-the-scenes US-Israel facilitator

From ordained New York rabbi, educator and entrepreneur to major player in international diplomacy.

ARYEH LIGHTSTONE (left) accompanies Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on a visit to the Western Wall  in 2019. (photo credit: MATTY STERN/US EMBASSY JERUSALEM)
ARYEH LIGHTSTONE (left) accompanies Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on a visit to the Western Wall in 2019.
Ask Aryeh Lightstone for a business card and he could pull out one of many from his jacket pocket: he is senior adviser and chief of staff to US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman; he is director of the Abraham Fund set up to increase business ties between Israel and the Gulf; and he also functions as something of a peace and economic envoy throughout the region.
For Lightstone though, it’s just another day at work.
Until the November 2016 election, Lightstone didn’t really have much to do with Donald Trump or his campaign. Originally from Denver, Lightstone was an ordained rabbi, educator, storyteller and entrepreneur from Long Island who had spent several years as head of the NCSY youth movement in the area. But as the Obama administration grew closer to Iran in 2014 and began promoting the JCPOA, Lightstone started getting actively involved in politics.
He had become friendly with Friedman, who at the time lived nearby and was a successful bankruptcy lawyer. When the time came for Friedman to head to Washington for his confirmation hearings, Lightstone was asked to come along. Neither of the men knew much about the machinations of Washington, but Lightstone had some experience, and that was worth something.
What Lightstone didn’t know at the time was that Friedman had asked Trump for permission to bring a senior adviser with him to Israel, a rare request for an ambassador. Trump agreed, and Friedman offered Lightstone the job, which became the “adventure of a lifetime.”
Ahead of the end of the Trump presidency on January 20 and by extension Lightstone’s tenure, I sat with him this week for a lengthy interview.
While his boss and mentor David Friedman is a household name in Israeli and American Jewish homes, the 40-year-old Lightstone is not, having spent the last four years behind the scenes and in the shadows, rarely speaking to the press. But Lightstone has been involved in every big event between Israel and the US, sitting in on almost all of the high-level dialogues between visiting dignitaries and their Israeli counterparts while working alongside his boss to advance the Trump administration’s interests.
In May, for example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew into Israel for a short visit, but Friedman didn’t feel well that day. Since no one was taking chances because of the coronavirus, Lightstone was asked by his boss to step in and serve as his replacement in all of Pompeo’s meetings, including with the prime minister.
Lightstone admits that it wasn’t always like this.
“The embassy never really had a political ambassador, and not a No. 2 either,” he said. “In the beginning the rule was to do no harm. Ambassador Friedman was described as a bankruptcy lawyer from Long Island, as if he was someone not experienced, and the last thing he needed was a rabbi from Long Island to make trouble.”
This meant “playing a lot of defense” for Lightstone to avoid making mistakes.
THE BIG change, he said, came on December 6, 2017, when Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
“Ambassador Friedman went from an ambassador who delivers a strong message to an ambassador who delivers meaningful outcome,” Lightstone recalls. “And the stock of the guy whose office is next to him is dependent on his stock.”
It was a period that the embassy in Israel went from “talking to doing,” and that gave Lightstone almost immediate credibility.
“Around the embassy opening [in May 2018], Ambassador Friedman made a conscious effort to put me at every critical meeting with US leaders who were meeting with their Israeli counterparts,” he said. “This sent a message that I had his trust and the trust of the administration, and in doing so we were able to get more done.”
With this newfound credibility, Lightstone was able to play an instrumental role in the big strategic moves that have taken place along the US-Israel axis: the moving of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, the withdrawal from the Iran deal, US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the roll out of the Trump peace plan, and the series of normalization and peace deals that have come about in recent months with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, and more on the way.
With the backing of Jared Kushner and working alongside Trump’s special envoy Avi Berkowitz, Lightstone jumped into building the economic “meat” for the Abraham Accords, putting together the first commercial flights from Israel to the UAE and to Morocco, as well as the first direct flight to Sudan that was taken by Pompeo following a visit to Jerusalem.
When Lightstone traveled throughout the region, he said, people understood that it was at Kushner’s behest, even if he didn’t have an official title.
“With Jared Kushner’s blessing and Avi Berkowitz’s green light, you can accomplish anything in the region,” he explained, adding that “building that bridge is the difference” in comparison with previous Israeli peace deals. “The real results on the ground for the people is [already] there. What we did was create the environment and platform for it to happen.”
Nevertheless, he said, there were reasons for one of the sides to take a step back every step of the way.
“There was media against it, countries were against it, politicians were against it, but we decided to go all out,” said Lightstone. “My job was to put meat on the bone so people could see meaningful results, and that this will last.”
According to Lightstone, everyone flying now between the new friendly countries needs to realize that the impression he or she makes on their visit will set the tone for how they will be viewed by their newfound partner. Everyone becomes an ambassador.
“You carry the future of the Middle East, and the way it looks will be the impression that you make on people in, for example, the UAE and Israel,” he said.
But does Lightstone feel that the Trump administration received credit in the US for how it produced the Abraham Accords?
His answer was quick. No.
“There is a major rush for judgment in the here and now,” he said, but “what happened needs to be viewed in historic proportions. Twenty years from now and 100 years from now, people will talk about the Abraham Accords that were led by President Trump that turned the Middle East from the source of problems in the world to the sources of solutions. There is no way history does not record that correctly.”
Lightstone said that people should be able to rise above partisan politics to see the importance of policies even if they don’t agree with the politician, and be able to appreciate that what Trump did makes “America safer and more prosperous.”
His advice to the incoming Biden administration is to remember that America being safe and prosperous is connected to the Middle East being safe and prosperous.
“I would keep that going, and I would keep supporting our allies and isolating our adversaries,” he said. “Don’t make it more complicated than it is. Peace is good – and it is not Democrat or Republican.”
A FEW weeks ago, Lightstone was in Abu Dhabi with US Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette whom he had accompanied from Israel. The morning of his flight back, he stepped into the lobby of his hotel and bumped into three Israeli men. They noticed his mask, which had the Israeli, American and Emirati flags on it alongside: “Peace, Shalom, Salam.” They asked for a selfie.
A few hours later, Lightstone landed in Israel and went straight to the King David Hotel, where he had a meeting to prepare for another visit of a top American official. As he walked into the hotel wearing the same mask three Emirati women stopped him, and asked for a selfie.
This, he says, is the story of a peace.
THERE WAS SOMETHING sad watching Benny Gantz address the nation on Tuesday night. Whether you agree with him or not, Gantz entered politics with good intentions. He constantly spoke about putting Israel first, and I think he honestly tried to do that in the beginning, even if it eventually got mixed in with political considerations.
On the other hand, there was also something just in what happened, his losing almost his entire party including top members Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, who have all jumped ship.
Gantz paid the price for violating his word. Yes, it seemed like a unity government was the right thing to do in April due to corona, but it was also a violation of a promise that Gantz had made not to sit in any government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Very early on he learned that Netanyahu had cheated him, and he should have immediately spoken out. Good intentions, he learned, will only get you so far.
He couldn’t have known this then, but his failure – Blue and White is barely crossing the electoral threshold in the latest polls – is already having an impact on the future of other IDF generals in politics.
From three IDF chiefs of staff who started the party, Gantz is the last man standing, and many politicians don’t believe that there will even be a Blue and White party to vote for by March 23, since by then it will have merged with someone else’s party. In addition to Ashkenazi leaving politics and Moshe Ya’alon now facing an uncertain future in Yesh Atid, former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot – who has long been on the fence about entering politics – announced on Wednesday that he is sitting out this election.
This is a positive development, as Israel continues to become less militaristic and less dependent on former generals. The Center and particularly the Left felt for years that the only possible candidate who could lead them to electoral success and defeat the Right was a former general. That is no longer a viable option. Gantz knows it, Ashkenazi knows it, and now Eisenkot knows it too.
On the other hand, Gantz’s failure should not be a stain on every future general or Mossad chief who contemplates a career in politics. These people are security experts, have vast experience in tough, decision-making moments, and still have what to contribute to Israel.
Is this the end of political generals? No. The pendulum will eventually swing back and find a new balance. But for now, there is a lesson to be learned in recognizing that political messiahs don’t really exist.