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An Insider’s View: ‘Let My People Know’ Offers News Without Bias

Reviewing: “Let My People Know: The Incredible Story of Middle East Peace And What Lies Ahead,” by Aryeh Lightstone. Encounter Books, NYC, 2022.

For most of us, even news junkies like myself, much of what we know about the Middle East policymaking successes of the Trump administration comes from news accounts that may be tinged by the bias of the source or lacking in depth. What we can really use, to appreciate the scope of these successes and the vision and effort behind them, is a thoughtful account from one of the key officials working alongside the prominent actors in the administration.

Aryeh Lightstone, known to many in this area for his service as director of New York NCSY (2006-2013) as well as his work in the business sector, served for four years as the senior advisor to U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, during the Trump administration. In that role he was a central player in the U.S. diplomatic projects that helped solidify the United States/Israel strategic partnership and enhanced Israel’s interests, position and strengths in the region.

What exactly did Lightstone do in this role? Early in their term in Israel, Ambassador Friedman was asked this question by Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer. Friedman replied: “I am not really sure. When I need him, he is there and when I don’t need him he is also there. But the way I have pictured him in the last 90 days is as a monk in solitude by candlelight going through every piece of paper that has ever been written by the State Department and, more importantly, every piece of paper that will be written by the State Department, crossing out ‘illegal occupied’ and replacing it with ‘disputed’” (Page 70, “Let My People Know”).

Though Friedman’s comment was intended as a humorous aside, it does highlight Lightstone’s first major assignment in the U.S. Embassy in Israel—an exhaustive review and revision of all area reports filtering through the Embassy. Realizing that most of these papers contained damning assertions against Israel made by partisan nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Lightstone edited the reports to identify each NGO making a claim and to use wording to indicate the subjectivity of their assessments, such as “claim” or “allege.” He also substituted the phrase “the disputed territories” for any mention of “illegally occupied Palestinian territory” or “the West Bank.” Lightstone states that: “This obscure endeavor may seem way down in the weeds, but Ambassador Friedman was not going to leave any part of U.S.-Israel policy to chance … These reports sent a warning shot to the NGOs and their funders: They could not expect their bias to be simply regurgitated for official U.S. consumption, and they would no longer be setting policy on their own agenda.” (p. 48)

Lightstone shares an insider’s view of a number of major U.S.-Israel policy changes, such as the decision to close the Palestinian mission to DC in November 2017 (due to President Abbas’s violation of the U.S. Anti-Terrorism Act of 1987); President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital on December 7, 2017; planning the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and its opening on May 14, 2018; the U.S. decision to no longer fund the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in July 2018; President Trump’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty of the Golan Heights in March 2019; the U.S.’s organizing The Peace to Prosperity Workshop in the Kingdom of Bahrain in June 2019 to offer a route to Israeli/Palestinian rapprochement; the opening of the Pilgrimage Road archeological site in June 2019; the U.S. State Department reassessment in November 2019 that the settlements in the disputed territories are not “illegal”; and the release of the “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israel People” plan in January 2020. His descriptions of the planning that led to these developments, his role (sometimes limited, sometimes significant) in each one, and the clear-eyed reasoning for every initiative are always thought-provoking, informative and enjoyable to read.

The author saves the last third of the book to share the background of and his pivotal role in helping to shepherd the Abraham Accords to fruition. Lightstone’s account highlights just how remarkable it was for the Trump Administration to bring together five Arab/Muslim nations—the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Bahrain, Serbia and Kosovo, Sudan and Morocco—to sign normalization agreements with Israel in fall 2020 and to do so in the midst of a global pandemic and while a heated presidential race was underway. This account is a detailed and enormously riveting read. If you pick up the book for no other reason than to get an eyewitness account of this remarkable five-act achievement, dayenu.

Yet there is much more to enjoy in this notable account. Lightstone’s humility shines through at many points and this reader was charmed to see his frequent concern for his family, as well as the joy he took in minor things like being invited to ride in a high-ranking official’s car or to take a visiting dignitary for a tour of an Israeli historical site. He also offers a bunch of humorous anecdotes, such as when his young daughter’s drawing of the new U.S. Embassy hanging in his office was deemed a violation of security protocols (because it showed classified spaces!) and destroyed by the Embassy security chief and when on a Sunday, while dressed casually, he was sent to attend a meeting in the prime minister’s office and PM Netanyahu noticed that Lightstone was wearing colorful Dr. Seuss socks, later patting him on the back and commenting: “Nice socks.”

My one critique of the book is that some of the accounts of major, historic moves would have been stronger if they included crucial “behind the scenes” information. As one example, in describing the process to move the Embassy to Jerusalem, Lightstone wrote: “At his rallies, the president told the raucous crowds that his State Department (i.e., Rex Tillerson) tried to make him agree to a ten year rollout costing over $1.5 billion, but his man on the ground, David Friedman, figured out how to get it done in just over six months and for less than $1 million.” Yet he does not share the efforts Friedman took, and the bureaucratic rules he sidestepped, to save all this money and expedite the process.

Similarly, Lightstone describes the backroom negotiations that led to a few of the Abraham Accords agreements, yet, with the exception of the UAE and Sudan, he does not describe the political, military or economic incentives the Trump Administration used to entice these nations to sign these agreements. Regular observers of politics know that all landmark agreements arrive with a variety of enticements baked into the deals; surely the Abraham Accords are no different. It would be helpful to learn more about these deal-making details.

Yet these omissions do not limit the value of this engaging and informative account of four highly significant years that advanced the U.S.-Israel alliance to previously unimaginable heights. The book is eminently worthwhile and I strongly recommend it.

By Harry Glazer

 

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