This is an adapted excerpt from “Let My People Know: The Incredible Story of Middle East Peace—and What Lies Ahead“ (Encounter Books, July 12).
Tomorrow, President Joe Biden will travel to Israel. I believe all Americans should root for his success. However, success will be more difficult to achieve because it hasn’t yet been defined by his administration. I had the honor of working for David Friedman, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, and Jared Kushner, former senior adviser to the president. With them, there was never any doubt about what success entailed. The only challenge was how to achieve it as efficiently and effectively as possible.
President Trump’s senior policy team consistently went against conventional wisdom, because that conventional wisdom was wrong. Breaking with that long-standing complacency led to the historic Abraham Accords. Biden can and should invest and expand the Abraham Accords. To do that, he and his own team must not revert to outmoded thinking. One way Biden could show he is leading the region into the future — instead of being handcuffed by the past — would be to go to the Western Wall with the president of Israel, Isaac Herzog.
Archeologists worked for six long years to excavate the ancient road that led from the Pool of Siloam to the site of the Temple of King Solomon (currently the Western Wall Plaza). One team was digging from north to south, and another from south to north. On June 30, 2019, there was a big celebration to mark the completion of the Pilgrimage Road excavation. Sara Netanyahu attended the breakthrough ceremony, along with the former mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat (then a member of the Knesset), and many of the biggest donors to the City of David project. Friedman led a U.S. delegation including other ambassadors that we had become friendly with over the prior two years, members of Congress, and White House officials.
It was a scorching day, and as we waited by the Pool of Siloam for the ceremony to begin, I realized that this was going to be a two-suit event at minimum for me. With much fanfare, Friedman and the U.S. delegation then went underground and walked hand in hand on the Pilgrimage Road with the Israeli dignitaries as well as leaders and supporters of the City of David project. At the midpoint, they broke through the temporary wall separating the northern and southern parts of the excavation. Then the small crowd of about a hundred continued on as far as the excavation had been completed.
Aside from the archeologists, we were the first people to walk the whole 500 meters of the Pilgrimage Road, on the ancient stones of the very same road that our physical or spiritual ancestors walked on to reach the Temple. It felt as though we had been transported back in time, and every stone our feet touched had a story to tell. This stone is where the prophet told his prophecy, and this one is where children would sit and play while their parents purchased the necessities for Temple services. In these moments we all celebrated the shared values of our two great countries, the United States and Israel.
The celebration concluded with a dinner at the Jerusalem home of David and Tammy Friedman. Benjamin and Sarah Netanyahu were there, along with the U.S. delegation. The fact that the ambassador’s home was now on Gershon Agron Street in Jerusalem made it all the more meaningful. I was chosen to be the master of ceremonies, and I can still remember the flutter in my stomach as I got up to address the crowd for the first of many times that evening.
There is a certain protocol involved when you have high officials present, and I realized that I hadn’t run my planned remarks by any of the protocol team or even the ambassador. I took a deep breath and walked to the stage. Looking out at the audience from the podium, I remembered why I didn’t need to clear my remarks. We had done something that was so fundamentally correct that everyone in the room felt the righteousness of their participation. Title and rank took second place to shared values and the project of uncovering history, so I could address the assembled dignitaries as friends.
While I said a lot of words that evening, there is one message that stands out in my memory. In introducing the prime minister, I shared these words of the Prophet Zechariah: “Old men and old women will again sit along the streets of Jerusalem, each with a staff in hand because of great age. And the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing there.” Then I described two pictures that hang over my fireplace.
One picture shows my family at the Western Wall, including my parents, along with Netanyahu and Friedman. This photo was taken by Matty Stern, the longtime embassy photographer, on the fourth night of Chanukah in 2018. It was the very first time that any Israeli prime minister had been to the Western Wall with any foreign diplomat. In that picture I see my mentors and heroes epitomizing leadership on the streets of Jerusalem, in an echo of the “old men and women” from Zechariah.
The other picture was taken on my family’s 12th visit to the City of David and the Pilgrimage Road (not yet fully excavated). I was probably on a tour with some important U.S. dignitary, and my kids always jumped at the chance to come along with me to the site. Even so, when you’re under 12 years old and on your 12 visit, perhaps you don’t want to hear the same narrative yet again, but play around in the excavation instead.
Gila, who is always with our family when we go to the City of David, made sure the kids wouldn’t break any ancient artifacts as she led them in spirited games of tag, hide-and-seek, and an elaborate form of patty-cake. While they were all seated on the road playing their clapping game, I captured this unique moment of pure joy on their faces. This photo brings to life the words of Zechariah: “And the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing there.”
Very likely, the prophet had in mind the road that my kids were sitting on. They could very well have been the first to play on it since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago.
After explaining these two pictures to the dinner guests, I thanked the prime minister for helping to bring part of Zechariah’s prophecy to life. Then I thanked Friedman and Trump for enabling the second half of the prophecy to come to fruition.
I remember sitting at a table in the ambassador’s garden with Victoria and George Coates, Ambassador George and Mary Glass, Jason Greenblatt, and Sen. Lindsey Graham. The wine was flowing and everyone was in great spirits. Then almost everyone started getting a flurry of Twitter notifications. The elite media were weighing in on the opening of the Pilgrimage Road, none too pleased with the substantial American presence. In fact, journalists accused Friedman and the delegation of essentially taking a sledgehammer to homes in Silwan, just above the excavation.
I am not claiming that the excavation has gone perfectly, without causing structural issues for any homes, but I am quite sure that those running the City of David project made great efforts to accommodate the needs of every resident in the area, whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim.
And while journalists were quick to describe the homes there as Palestinian, Silwan is firmly in Jerusalem; Israel recognized all of Jerusalem as part of Israel; and the United States now recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But the media, being in love with its own narratives, claimed that the U.S. delegation was literally supporting the destruction of Palestinian homes.
Those news stories bounced rapidly around the Twittersphere, and the echo chamber amplified the message. Yet no one at the celebration that evening seemed to be bothered by it. Everyone there knew they had participated in something positive and truthful.
Aryeh Lightstone served as senior advisor to the U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2017 to 2021. Follow @lightstonea.
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