In his final days in office, Barack Obama sought a UN Security Council resolution to pressure Israel to stop building settlements. Donald Trump, by contrast, is working as fast as he can to finalise controversial normalisation deals between Israel and the Arab countries.
Last week he appointed a right wing Jewish rabbi, Aryeh Lightstone, as head of Abraham Fund, the outcome of the Abraham Accords, as the UAE-Israel normalisation deal was called, thus far worth three billion US dollars. As the US Special Envoy for Economic Normalisation Lightstone is to represent “US interests in normalising economic relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, Kosovo and Morocco,” according to a State Department statement.
An advisor to the US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Lightstone is a right-wing Orthodox rabbi from New York with little experience outside religious education. From any Arab point of view, his ideological orientation is cause for concern. According to a report by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), democrats at the Congress have pointed out that his appointment is another example of Trump slipping his right-wing allies into sensitive career positions before he leaves office – what has been called “burrowing”. The decision makes Washington an unequivocal backer of Israel’s settlement enterprise, which is opposed by President-Elect Joe Biden.
Trump’s choice of decision-makers in this area has stressed ideological conviction at the expense of competence. In his administration, four people have consistently shaped Middle East policy. They include three New York Jews – Friedman, Jared Kushner (his senior adviser and son-in-law) and Jason Greenblatt (Trump Organisation lawyer-turned-US international envoy) – as well as former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, the current ambassador to the UN.
In mid-November, just after the election, Trump named Michael Ellis senior director for Intelligence at the National Security Agency. It was the same burrowing approach by which he tasked a very arguably unqualified Kushner with brokering a peace deal back in 2017.
Lightstone has fought against liberal Israelis and raised funds for such Israeli advocacy groups as Shining City. Speaking on condition of anonymity before the official announcement, sources told JTA that, being “partisan”, Lightstone is unsuitable for this role. But his appointment might be repealed by Biden, who will be inaugurated within two weeks. Aaron David Miller, geo-economic and strategy senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al Ahram Weekly that “this envoy will likely be out of a job in less than 17 days. It’s neither a serious nor consequential move.”
Yet according to sources cited by The Jerusalem Post in Tel Aviv and Washington, Trump is pushing for another Arab or Muslim state to normalise relations before the end of his last three weeks in office. Indonesia, Mauritania, Niger or Oman could be next. When Mike Pence next visits Israel, prior to Biden’s inauguration, a new Abraham Accords deal may be announced. According to Trump’s international affairs adviser Avi Berkowitz, speaking to Israel Hayom in late December, “the peace process team is working until the last second.” The pace of normalisation deals brokered by the Trump administration has alienated Palestinians who condemn them as undermining the Palestinian cause the possibility of a just and lasting peace.
While widely seen as a vindictive move to place obstacles in the way of the Biden team, Trump’s efforts may also be a long-term investment in his political future. According to his campaign, Trump has put forward the idea of running for president again in 2024.
“Trump is trying to create facts on the ground to tie the Biden administration’s hands. Biden will have a hard time inside and outside the US fixing all the damage done by the most irresponsible president in American history,” Nabil Khouri, a non-resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and a former US diplomat, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Trump has achieved the normalisation deals by offering the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco the gift of an American acknowledgement of some issue that has long been sought by them, but Khouri says these gifts mean nothing. “Trump doesn’t own any land in Morocco or in Palestine to be giving it away. No one should be happy with his gifts, which change nothing on the ground. Israel will still have to fix its problems with the Palestinian people, and Morocco with the Sahrawi people,” he says.
“Trump is serving his own political interests. He doesn’t care what happens to those who receive his gifts.”
Profile: Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone, US special envoy for normalisation
RABBI Aryeh Lightstone, 40, was announced the US special envoy for economic normalisation by the US State Department on December 31st.
Lightstone, a graduate of Yeshiva University, is a right-wing Orthodox rabbi from Long Island, New York. He has served in several educational roles across New York and Long Island over the past decade, most recently as chief creative officer and co-founder of Mekorot Education, an organisation modernising the delivery of Jewish education online. He also served as New York’s regional director of the Orthodox Jewish youth group NCSY for seven years. Having been ordained at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), he has been involved with teen education for a decade.
Lightstone has a background in Jewish nonprofits, including the Orthodox Union and the National Council for Synagogue Youth. He founded various Jewish learning entities in Israel including the Aleph Beta Academy, a Jewish educational tech company, the Jewish Unity Mentoring Programme (JUMP) Leadership initiative, the Jerusalem Ambassadors as well as the Friday Night Lights. Since 2017, he has served as senior adviser for US Ambassador for Israel David Friedman.
In 2014, Lightstone served as CEO of Shining City, an American organisation that has provided substantial funding for the ultra-nationalist, right-wing Israeli watchdog Im Tirtzu, which has long targeted liberal Israeli activists, including artists, writers and academics. An Israeli judge ruled that it is not slanderous to characterise Im Tirtzu as fascist. Haaretz has separately revealed that Shining City is run by wealthy individuals close to Netanyahu and the US Republican Party. Lightstone is said to have close ties to the Trump family, particularly to Ivanka Trump, who co-chaired a competition that awarded one of Lightstone’s educational initiatives.
In 2011 Lightstone worked with Ivanka Trump, who judged high school students’ proposals to improve Israel advocacy through a youth initiative of his called the Jewish Unity Mentoring Programme. The winners of the previous year’s contest received a $2,500 check from Donald Trump, whose bankruptcy lawyer was David Friedman. According to a ProPublica investigation, the rabbi held a stake worth up to $50,000 in one of Elliott Broidy’s businesses, called Threat Deterrence Capital LLC. Broidy, a formerly influential campaign fundraiser for President Donald Trump and the Republican Party, has been charged by the Department of Justice with criminal conspiracy for acting as a foreign lobbyist.
As the head of Shining City Lightstone has also been active in passing state-level anti-BDS legislation, most notably in Texas and Wisconsin, with the help of a lobbyist named James Frinzi. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) is a Palestinian led global movement to boycott Israel.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.