peace prospects

Despite war’s challenges, Abraham Accords Peace Institute CEO optimistic about the region’s future

Aryeh Lightstone tells JI that while business ties continue between Israel and Accords partners, people-to-people efforts have been damaged since war in Gaza began

State Department

Aryeh Lightstone

Since Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7, Israel’s relations with Arab states have been under significant stress, with leaders across the region criticizing to varying degrees Israel’s war effort while expressing support for the Palestinian cause.

Yet, unlike in the Second Intifada or early-aughts rounds of fighting against Hamas in Gaza, no Arab countries have cut relations with Israel since the start of the war nearly six months ago.

As the Abraham Accords Peace Institute (AAPI) states in its 2023 Annual Report, provided exclusively to Jewish Insider ahead of its publication on Tuesday, Israel’s 2020 normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, plus Kosovo and prior peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt, “survived, and diplomatic and trade relations have continued.”

Among the positive developments reported by the AAPI, an organization founded by Jared Kushner, son-in-law and former senior advisor to former President Donald Trump, in 2023: a meeting between Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Emirati President Mohammad bin Zayed (MBZ) in the UAE in November, as well as then-Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen’s visit to Bahrain in September. The India-Middle East-Europe Corridor initiative was announced in September, with plans to connect East Asia to Europe via the Gulf and Israel. 

In an economic boost, a UAE-Israel free trade deal went into effect in April. Trade between Israel and Abraham Accords signatories, as well as with Jordan and Egypt increased 16% in 2023, surpassing $4 billion; measuring only the months before the Hamas attack on Israel, trade grew 24%. 

After Oct. 7, “despite tensions and disagreements, the leaderships of the Abraham Accords countries affirmed their continued commitment to these historic agreements,” the report reads. “Accords countries were able to leverage the trust built with Israel over the previous years to coordinate humanitarian and medical aid to Gaza.”

However, the report points out, “the war had a strongly negative impact on regional public opinion towards Israel, while also slowing progress towards Israel-Saudi normalization.” 

The CEO of the Abraham Accords Peace Institute, Aryeh Lightstone, is acutely aware of the challenges the war in Gaza poses to Israel’s relations – open and secret – in the region.

However, in an interview with JI, Lightstone, the Trump administration’s special envoy for economic normalization and senior adviser to former U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, explained why there are still plenty of reasons to be optimistic and how the Abraham Accords can still serve as an example and a platform for advancing peace in the Middle East.


Jewish Insider: You’re presenting the report to the Knesset on Tuesday in a special meeting. Is this the time for a celebratory meeting, in the middle of a war?

Aryeh Lightstone: I think there’s a reason the Knesset is willing to do that. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) is coming to share some words and the Knesset Speaker [Amir Ohana] will spend time on this. In a year that is so filled with frustration, anguish and disappointment, the Abraham Accords describe a pathway forward for the region…It’s incredibly important to remember the lessons that got us to the Abraham Accords originally, and how they’ll get us out of the circumstances we’re in now.

The U.S. has to stand with no daylight with our ally Israel, beat back Iran and its malign influences. Perfect is the enemy of good; Israel doesn’t have to be perfectly aligned with the UAE, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia…We need to understand that working together is better than working apart…This is a better way, a different way. People should be bullishly optimistic.

A solution for Gaza will be better with these relationships.

JI: Do you think there is a chance that the UAE or Saudi Arabia will be part of the solution for Gaza? They set challenging conditions in public for helping with reconstruction.

AL: If you look at Saudi Arabia after 9/11, there was a meaningful concern that they were what was wrong with the region. Today, you can make the argument that they are what is correct in the region… How do you move from radical Islam to moderate Islam [in Gaza]? The UAE has done this for 50 years. There is a road map for how to get this done that is distinctly different from what the international community is saying, and it has nothing to do with the [Palestinian Authority] or Hamas. Purely using them as a road map would be an enormous step forward.

Without a road map, I’m not sure why anyone would jump into something that looks like a sinking ship. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, Morocco – all the countries in or who would want to join the Abraham Accords – have no interest in affiliation with Hamas or its henchmen in Gaza. They would like to see the elimination of radical Islamic terrorists, if possible with zero civilian casualties – which is not actually possible.

Our inability to be nuanced on this issue hurts the region. We have to say these things clearly and carefully.

JI: You mention Saudi Arabia as a country that wants to join the Abraham Accords – where do you think that stands?

AL: I think there will be meaningful talk about normalization with Saudi Arabia this summer… If it’s a deal that is peace for peace, it should be pursued rigorously and speedily. Creating peace that is dependent on the Israeli-Palestinian relationship as it stands today is asking for long-term challenges in that relationship. We should get off on the right foot.

It’s important to double down on the existing relationships and praise those countries for holding it together during this time, so that when the time comes, they’re ready to jump forward meaningfully.

JI: Let’s back up to Oct. 7. How did relations between Israel and other Abraham Accords countries change since then?

AL: It fundamentally changed things in two different ways. Israel put up a sign that says “we’re busy, be back later.” Masses of people were serving in reserves… There was no time for anything else. Tech people were in the [war] field, workers were in the field, leadership was in the field. They took six to eight weeks off from an economic perspective. Business just fell off a cliff, because of a lack of ability… Israel was closed for business, I’d argue, for eight weeks.

In the process of those eight weeks, the East caught up with the West. Students at Harvard started protesting for Palestinians on Oct. 9, before Israel did anything… Nobody in the Middle East was protesting in favor of Hamas at that point. It took the hospital fake news piece about the [Al-Ahli] Hospital that was ultimately dispelled [to spark protests in the region]. When President Biden came to Israel, and Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority refused to meet with him based on a fake news story, and he didn’t put his foot down and say, “You’re meeting with me,” that was a signal for the rest of the countries. The game was lost at that point.

JI: How did that turning point play out in the region?

AL: From that moment until today, much of the goodwill that had gone into people-to-people efforts [between Israel and Abraham Accords states], getting to know each other, had disappeared. If in America, research showed that TikTok is 86% anti-Israel, in the Arab world it’s 99.9%, and that caused an enormous hiccup.

JI: Business ties are a key part of Israel’s relations with Abraham Accord countries – were those hurt as well?

AL: The business numbers continued to a great degree. If you take out those eight weeks, the last month of 2023 was strong. Business continued to happen after Israel opened its doors.

JI: Do you think there’s a chance for relations between Israel and the region to recover in 2024?

AL: Depending what happens in the north, and assuming there is not an all-out war [between Israel and Lebanon], I think 2024 is going to see a reset starting on Sept. 1, a dating process between the people of Israel and the Abraham Accords countries. It’ll start with the UAE, because they’ll lead this again, followed by Bahrain and Morocco, and depending on how the U.S. elections go…extend to other interested countries, as well.

JI: Israel’s natural gas exports to Egypt and Jordan increased by 24% in 2023, but there has been talk in recent months, especially from Jordan, about cutting cooperation with Israel. What are your projections for gas and energy cooperation between Israel and the region in 2024?

AL: Israel-Egypt relations remain strong in that regard. It’s great that they are advancing beyond just security. And you can see the UAE investing in the Egyptian economy. 

In terms of energy, Israel was about to conclude an enormous deal in the private sector with BP and ADNOC [before Oct. 7]. In the future of the Middle East, there will be enormous energy deals that will continue to solidify the relationship between Israel and countries in the region.

We will see the UAE and other countries participate in deals for the gas Israel has in the Mediterranean Sea, both to help supply Europe more meaningfully and to Jordan…which is in desperate need of water and energy. Jordan has challenges working with Israel, but this is the advantage – as the region moves towards peace, they should be able to benefit meaningfully.

JI: In light of the war in Gaza, Jordan refused to sign onto the Blue-Green Deal, whereby Israel would provide Jordan with desalinated water in exchange for building a solar field in Jordan that would provide energy to Israel. How do the sides move forward from there?

AL: Had the U.S. embraced the Abraham Accords differently, I think this deal would have already been done. It’s an enormous hiccup and we have to get it back on track. 

To a great degree, I think it will be easier now that there are no shovels in the ground to articulate a different or better deal at the right time… A reconstituted deal would likely involve the private sector selling water to Jordan. People in the region are realizing that government-to-government is more challenging and business-to-business is more likely to succeed. 

It’s much more challenging [for Jordan] to reject a business than to say no to Israel time and time again.

It all goes back to MBZ hosting Herzog in the middle of a war. There’s the idea and the reality in the Middle East. People dealing with reality are building a future, but the purists are stuck. Whatever they’re imagining is not what exists today and not likely what it will be.

JI: Has Oct. 7 changed anything for the proposed India-Middle East-Europe Corridor land route?

AL: By 2035, we’re going to look back and see that this region has become something that none of us could imagine – maybe [UAE leader] MBZ or [Saudi Crown Prince] MBS [Mohammed bin Salman] could, but nobody in Israel. 

Part of the motivation behind it is to differentiate from China, but the other part is that there is an enormous natural partnership. 

JI: Israel’s National Security Council released a new travel warning last week, and Egypt and Jordan were there as usual in times of conflict, but of the Abraham Accords countries, only Morocco was listed. What’s happening there? 

AL: The UAE is consistently ranked as the safest country in the world, tied with Singapore… Bahrain is safe, too. [President Herzog] was invited to the UAE in the middle of the war and there were no significant security concerns, which speaks meaningfully to where the UAE and the Abraham Accords are.

Morocco is very safe for its region of the world, but it is much larger. Israelis don’t just go to Casablanca and Rabat; they travel the entire country. And Morocco is not under a security microscope like the UAE; it has a very large population… The economic benefits of the Abraham Accords to Morocco, including connectivity to the U.S., brought the election of a pro-Western government, but three years doesn’t change the culture.

Algerians could get into Morocco and try to make something happen. It’s a challenging security situation. 

The last thing Morocco wants is for Israelis to come and be in any form of danger or harassment…[Israel and Morocco] probably agreed on the warning. I think it was a mature decision. 

This is a relationship that is ready to spring again. Let’s wait until things are calm, and we should be able to start again from where we were.

JI: You were only supposed to be the temporary CEO of the Abraham Accords Peace Institute, but here you are months later presenting the 2023 report. What made you decide to stay?

AL: [Former AAPI CEO and Senior Director for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs at the National Security Council] Robert Greenway got a great offer from the Heritage Foundation, and Jared [Kushner] asked if I would take over for a transitionary period and help find a new CEO. I was supposed to start on Oct. 8. Then, Oct. 7 happened, and Jared said the AAPI can’t just write reports, we have to be in the weeds and know what is going on. I have taken on this job as a full-time volunteer to move things in the right direction.

I don’t think there is anything more important to do with my time than to try to hold on to what we have in the Abraham Accords and build on the opportunities for the future.

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