Aryeh Lightstone, senior adviser to US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, was recently appointed special envoy for economic normalization, with responsibility to represent US interests in normalizing economic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, Kosovo, and Morocco. Special Envoy Lightstone spoke with The Media Line’s Felice Friedson about the future of the Abraham Accords under a new US administration, the launching of a new business network bringing together women entrepreneurs in the Abraham Accord nations and beyond, and the role of the Abraham Fund in supporting economic normalization in the region.
To hear the interview, go to The Hill on the Middle East podcast . A transcript of the interview follows.
The Media Line: Welcome to the Hill on the Middle East. Delighted to have you, Special Envoy Lightstone.
Lightstone: Oh, it’s so nice to be here! I’m such a big fan of the way you cover the region and beyond and I’m excited to have the opportunity to at least say hello.
TML: Thank you! The Abraham Accords swept down on the region with recognition of the State of Israel by Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan. Morocco has an agreement but says it’s not part of the Abraham Accords. Other Gulf countries appear to be poised to join as well. How do you believe the change in administration will affect the newfound relationships?
Lightstone: I think the peace normalization and strengthening of relationships, especially amongst our allies, is something that everybody in American can celebrate, and so much so that I would tell you that when 2020 is brought up, in five years from now, and 10 years from now, and 50 years from now, I think he can divide it in between what happened to the world, which is COVID, the coronavirus, how we reacted to that assuming we brought out some of our worst instincts, and we see the big challenges, and how we conquered it with the vaccine, which we’re experiencing and living through right now, but also the Abraham Accords. I think those are the two signature events of 2020, and the distinction between the two is something happened to the world, the Abraham Accords is something that the leaders of these countries that you just enumerated did for their people, for the region, and for the world. And because of that, I would imagine, and certainly hope that everybody – Republican, Democrat, Independent – America and our allies will all run to embrace the effects of the Abraham Accords.
TML: Will the accords withstand the change in administration?
Lightstone: Absolutely! The accords will stand the change of who sits in any of the offices of any of these countries. These accords were not done for press releases. These accords were not done for political opportunism. These accords were done to grant greater prosperity, safety, and security in the region, and one of the privileges that I have under the direction of my boss, Ambassador Friedman, Avi Berkowitz, and Jared Kushner, is to put the economic wheel together so that way they’re rolling in such a way that the advantages to the people on the ground are obvious and real in real time.
TML: We’ll get to economics in a moment. It hasn’t been clear sailing all the way. Bipartisan voices have expressed disagreement with providing some of the most sophisticated weapons to Gulf countries, citing the United States’ commitment to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region. Are the arms sales conditions for the various normalizations?
Lightstone: So, two comments. No. 1 is partisan people will say partisan things. No. 2 is, there is no arms sale condition as part of the agreement. There is an opportunity when countries will come closer with our top ally in the region, in this case, the State of Israel, that they get to re-evaluate where they are on their security relationship with the United States 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 United States, but something that should be exceedingly clear to your listening audience, and hopefully to your reading audience, is that QME is not subjective. The qualitative military edge that the United States has committed to the State of Israel in broad bipartisan fashion is a law. It’s a regulation. It’s the rule. And we will follow that rule. We’ll follow that law. We will follow that regulation in order to maintain that QME.
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 staw man argument.
TML: So, weapons aside, what are the most significant benefits the participating Gulf states will see from the Abraham Accords?
Lightstone: To enumerate the benefit, you can go very simple, which is coming out of 2020, you’ve got [that] every economy is depressed in some way, shape or form. So, the best case that most economies can hope for is to get back to where they were. When you’re able to unleash a brand-new economy, and a brand-new relationship that says where I was, is not my ceiling, where I was becomes my new floor, the economic opportunities are meaningful. You saw it just six weeks ago in the UAE over what was Hanukkah break with the Israelis, with again, if you believe the numbers, anywhere between 25,000 and 100,000 Israelis flocked there as tourists.
Now you’ll read a couple of the articles in terms of some of the misbehavior. I am assuming and guessing and frankly hoping that that is an infinitesimal number compared to the gross amount of tourists that came, and that enjoyed, and that experienced the fun.
I’ll just say what Jared Kushner says every single time somebody gets on a flight to the UAE or Bahrain, or from their going to Israel or to Morocco and Sudan – every one of those people becomes an ambassador. They become an ambassador of their country, of their people, of their culture, and every one of these is countries is equally nationalistic. Israelis are feeling proud to be Israelis, the Bahrainis, Bahraini, the Emiratis, Emirati, the Moroccans, Moroccan, the Sudanese, Sudanese, etc.
I believe that 99% of them want to demonstrate the very best to their country, to their newfound friends, and want to elevate that friendship. So, at the very basic level, it’s an opportunity that didn’t exist before, so it’s like finding an extra $20 bill in your pocket before you’re about to put them in the wash. It’s just a tremendous lift. The second piece, which is more obvious to many people, is Israel is a technological superpower, not a regional power, a technological superpower.
And when you’re looking at how the world is going to look in this century, you’re either going to be advanced technologically, or you’re not, and there’s a difference between being a consumer of the technology versus being a co-creator of that technology. And by entering into these Abraham Accords, those countries, the Kingdom of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, don’t need to just be partners with us as the United States – the superpower for technology – but our chief co-creator partner, the State of Israel. And therefore in the region in that area they have the opportunity to go ahead and sort of join, not the startup nation, but I’ll call it the startup region. And I believe that that is very much the hope of every one of the leaders in the region.
TML: Based on news reports, it appears that there will be attempts by elements in Congress to overturn specific Abraham Accords programs. So, what are the chances of that happening?
Lightstone: You have to be specific and enumerate in which one of the programs that the Abraham Accords would want to be turned over. To me, it would be difficult to argue against peace. Are there better ways to achieve peace? I’m sure there can be. And I hope that whoever isn’t excited about Program A is doing that because they believe that Program B will grant a better return to our taxpayer 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.
No. 1, every investment that we’ve made is not a grant. It is a return on our equity to our taxpayers, to the Congress, to the Treasury.
No. 2 is, 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 again, Jared and Ambassador Friedman have said, it has pivoted from the Middle East as 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.
TML: Tell us about the United Women’s Economic Development Network. What is it, and how are its projects different than those pursued under the basic agreements?
Lightstone: Thank you! This is a project that I’m very specifically passionate about. We had the opportunity of having the first-ever Abraham Accords Business Summit in Abu Dhabi in October led by the indefatigable Secretary Steven Mnuchin. He came and he spent the day in Abu Dhabi bringing Israeli and Emirati business together in order to tout the economic opportunities in between our two great allies there.
Why do we need to get involved in these circumstances? Very simple: Because of COVID, everything has slowed down – no flights, no embassies, no commercial attachés, so the United States of America has served as both a bridge and an umbrella for the beginning parts of this normalization opportunity.
It was at the Abraham Accords Business Summit that I was sitting across the table from a very dynamic female entrepreneur who turned to me and said, “First of all, women businesses in this region are booming. We are on the ascendancy.” And I was very moved by that, and we shared some statistics and some opportunities. And no. 2, she said, “But it is different to be a woman entrepreneur and leader in this part of the world than in other parts of the world. It would be beneficial if we created a network to support each other.”
I looked to the left and I looked to the right and realized she was talking to me. On many things I’m a proponent of the Abraham Accords, and of women’s empowerment, but I wasn’t positive that I was at the right place for that specific direction, and it turned out she was looking at me and I looked at her and I said, “I’ll work with you to create this network.”
And I came back to Israel, and went to one of my key people that I brainstorm with for various different ideas and she said, “I’ll help co-chair this network together.” And we went to the White House. It was immediately embraced by the White House and by the State Department. It’s very rare that you have an idea in the fall, after elections, heading towards the transition, that people are willing to drop everything and pick up in order to carry, and that’s what happened in the State Department’s Development and Finance Corporation.
The White House said, “We need to get this women’s network together, and there’s going to be a network launched tomorrow, virtually, unfortunately, because of COVID – we would’ve much rather done this in person – but with women from many countries who are going to participate and create a network for how they can excel as cross-border leaders, cross-border entrepreneurs, cross-border businesses. And as a businessperson myself, or once upon a time as a businessperson, you look for trends, right?
So, right now I would 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. So, when you can see these two trends merging into one, that strikes me as not an incremental opportunity, but an exponential opportunity. So, we’re very excited about this.
TML: There were a lot of bold and bright women in the Middle East, and you see that there has been a sharp rise in entrepreneurs, specifically women in the region. So, do you feel that this timing was absolutely ripe now, even before you see their transition of administration to go ahead and launch this?
Lightstone: 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 20th at 11 AM or at 4 PM, the timing shouldn’t matter. Again, 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, or who’s going to be on the thing.
They said, you can get us together as a network to support each other. This has never happened before; it’s truly historic. Let’s get together and let’s work. And everybody on that call knows that some of the people from the United States, they’re not going to be on that call in the same capacity in two weeks. Now, they don’t care. This is also an issue of when the opportunities in front of you, you seize it. I am 100% confident that my colleagues at the State Department and at the NSC 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.
TML: Ambassador-at-large for Global Women’s Issues Kelley Currie will be joining you at the virtual launch. Now, will this program fold into the State Department’s Women’s Global Development and Prosperity initiative? How are you seeing it?
Lightstone: I am seeing it as it will be presented to the next administration, as they will meet with the women of the women’s network and they will decide the best opportunity for how they can carry it forward. Our goal is to be able to launch this with excitement and to get the right women around the virtual table. And the women leaders are the ones from those countries who decided they wanted this network. They wanted a fist from the United States to get it off and running. I am optimistic that the United States will run hand in hand with these women to be able to see this go to the next step and even higher.
If that chooses not to be the case by a future administration, these women will carry forth this message and opportunity to women in their own countries, and it’s a woman in the other Abraham Accords countries and Morocco and elsewhere, in order to be able to see success for them. They are driven not just by the bottom line but by an underlying mission, and I think as you mentioned, just minutes ago, this is a trend on the rise in this region. And I think it would be smart to bet on this trend.
TML: Can you speak to the countries that are participating yet?
Lightstone: Yeah, the unique, part of my role from the Abraham Fund and now the envoy for special economic normalization, is that as we get an opportunity to speak to all of these countries, we have embassies there who are working overtime on being able to both strengthen the US relationship with whatever country they’re posted to, and the Abraham Accords is an extra layer of work that they have.
Never once has anybody told me that this isn’t what I signed up for, or it’s more than I anticipated. They jumped into it with hours and an attitude that has helped to propel our embassies across the Abraham Accords region are just incredibly excited to work with Avi Berkowitz with Jared Kushner and Secretary of State Pompeo, to effectuate these changes.
TML: Could you just take a moment to explain economic normalization? People sometimes think of those two words and they’re trying to understand, does that mean I’m opening a business to business between women of different countries? Am I helping to direct them? What is the actual point?
Lightstone: So, part of it is extremely boring. You would assume that Israel gets to meet Morocco for example, and Morocco’s interests in desalinization plants, and you take an Israeli desal[inization] company and you bring it to Morocco, or the UAE and Israel are both working on space projects when you put them together. That’s true. You get to go ahead and make some of those introductions and be part of some of those conversations, but the effort of the special envoy for economic normalization is just making sure that the banks can speak to each other.
What are the MOUs [memoranda of understanding] that need to be signed? Is there an Investment Protection Act? That way somebody can confidently lend. Is there a tax agreement? So, somebody knows that the tax rules are. When two countries that didn’t have relations with each other, now the two countries want to add those relations, but people from within those countries want to build businesses and see opportunities it’s everything from visas to commercial flights to civil aviation to banking to taxes to cyber to patent law.
There’s a lot of what I would call, as a business guy, I’m excited about the business opportunities, but anybody who’s stepped into a business environment has to know the rule of law and the state of play of the regulatory environment. And a lot of this is just making sure that those I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed.
TML: So, what role will the Abraham Fund play here? And you’re the director of that.
Lightstone: So, the Abraham Fund is a separate position, and that is money allocated by the DFC, our Development Finance Corporation, which is stood up by Congress and reinvested by Congress just weeks ago. The CEO is Adam Boehler and he’s done an incredible job in the right direction. What it is, is that Congress has given us money with the obligation of A. supporting our foreign policy, B. returning that money to our taxpayers, and C. helping developed countries move from, we’ll call it [being] charity recipients to developing where they can be not only standing on their own but net givers in the economic circle. And that’s the mandate of Congress here in order to allocate these funds.
Now there’s a large bowl of funds. What the Abraham Fund does, is it takes a billion and a half dollars matched by some other outside money and says, this money is going to be reserved for Abraham Accords countries in order to be able to have a special look at the deals that will happen in those countries, and so therefore that money is there on behalf of the United States of America to find select opportunities to help the developing countries of the Abraham Accords nations to be able to have access to the financing that Congress has requested for us to provide.
TML: Has that manifested yet?
Lightstone: Well, we’ve looked at most of the deals that exist in the Development Finance Corporation have a tail of somewhere between one and 15 years. So, as the Abraham Fund started in early October, we’ve vetted way over 250 deals. We’ve moved on to a couple of dozen that are what I would call in a significant vetting process. We’ve signed a couple of letters of interest. One of them was pretty publicly reported on which was a pipeline with Emirati and Israeli partners running from Eilat to Ashkelon, giving an opportunity for Gulf oil, easier access to the Mediterranean and a bunch of other deals.
Most of these deals that you’ll see, you wouldn’t know where the funding comes from. Their core infrastructure, food security, supply chain integrity, data warehousing that traditional funding wouldn’t necessarily support, the development financing is there. So, we’ve done an incredible job finding the right partners and vetting those deals, and now those deals are, are having due diligence done on them by comparing very strong professionals in Washington, DC.
I wish, as an entrepreneur, that process would move faster, but as an American taxpayer, I’m very pleased that there again, every I has been dotted and every T has been crossed, and we’re hopeful to be able to announce deals maybe in the first quarter of 2021, [and] possibly into the second quarter.
TML: Today you define yourself as an entrepreneur, but how did Aryeh Lightstone make the leap from education to diplomacy to what you say now, entrepreneur?
Lightstone: Well, at my core, I’ve been an entrepreneur. When I was an educator, I was an entrepreneurial educator. When I served in various different social action capacities, I was entrepreneurial in that regard. My philosophy has always been to try to go where whatever skill set I’m blessed to have, and if I have one, is a value added above the person who would be there instead of me.
The reason why I’m here is really based upon just two names only. One is Estee Lightstone, my wife, whose been supportive of to be married to an entrepreneur and is willing to take risks. It takes a very special type of fortitude to be able to do that. And Ambassador Friedman. He did not need to select me for the job of senior adviser to the embassy, and even after he selected me, he didn’t need to elevate me to be able to have so many different opportunities. And without the two of them, I would call my best friend, my wife and my mentor, Ambassador Friedman, I would be literally nowhere in terms of this position.
By both of them being very supportive, it enabled me to work with incredible people, like Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz, and the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador Nikki Haley, and now Ambassador Kelly Knight Craft. What an honor and a privilege to be able to have all this and it’s all because of both my wife and Ambassador Friedman.
TML: Is there a single story about the government officials, both US and Mideast, that you’ve met while putting together the Abraham Accords Fund and being involved, which changed your own personal view?
Lightstone: The stories that I’m comfortable sharing, probably the single most interesting story, is you have this image, whether it’s the secretary of the treasury and the secretary of state, and then you meet the ministers of these other countries, whether it’s Bahrain or UAE, Sudan or Morocco, and you discover at that moment of having a conversation that they’re real people.
You have this image of this leader who doesn’t go home to a wife or to a husband or kids or to parents and COVID and how that affects them. And the experience that I had was actually, even before the agreements were signed, even before the first phone call, we were trying to help repatriate Americans to get back to America, and because we’ve got a very strong foreign service, Israel relies on us to be helpful where we can in times of crisis and COVID-19 is certainly a time of crisis.
And I spoke to somebody I’d met once before from a country that will remain anonymous right now. It doesn’t have the best relationship with us, and it certainly doesn’t have a relationship with Israel. And we were trying to bring two backpackers home, who had underlying conditions [and they] needed to get a home in case of a COVID-19 situation. And I was speaking to this minister on the phone, and the person broke down basically in tears, and said, “Yeah, I also have a 19- and a 24-year-old kid. And if they were somewhere else, I would do anything to be able to bring them home.”
And to me, that was inspiring, because the countries don’t have … we in that country don’t have the best diplomatic relations. That country and Israel have no diplomatic relations. At the end of the day, I was speaking to a significant minister who was also a father and understood what that meant. And I’ll tell you at that moment, I was incredibly elated with the opportunities for peace, that I think the humility of COVID-19 provided for us, but I was also extremely upset because if you look at … pick a democratic country who was fighting like cats and dogs in their Congress, in their parliaments, in their whatever, about COVID relief. And I’m sitting here, these people are calling each other names and yelling at each other uncivilly and accusing each other of the most horrendous things. And I’m on the phone with a minister from a country who has no relations with Israel, who breaks down in tears because he wants to help these Israeli kids.
And I sat there and I said, how great would it be if all of the democratic leaders from all countries – I’m not calling to add any particular country, not mine, not Israel, not any other country – if the leaders who were elected in this year put some of their feelings aside and wanted to work together. I mean, it was inspiring towards peace across countries. It was disappointing when you saw the interpolitical battles that go on in so many of our democratic countries.
TML: Special Envoy for Economic Normalization Aryeh Lightstone, thank you for joining me here on the Hill on the Middle East, and looking forward to the launch of the United Women’s Economic Development Network.
Lightstone: Thank you so much for having me on. What a fun show! And again, I really appreciate everything that you do.