Ishmael Khaldi: An Israeli-Arab Diplomat

by Jeffrey Dastin:

“An 87-year-old woman, who became a very close friend, [asked] one of the toughest questions in my adult life: if you are a Muslim, and a Bedouin, and an Arab, how come you are representing a Jewish state?”

Ishmael Khaldi, 40, is a Middle East and Arab affairs advisor in Israel’s Foreign Ministry. He became the first Bedouin in Israel’s foreign service in 2004, before accepting the post under Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in 2009. Recently, he published a memoir, A Shepherd’s Journey, and spoke to Yale students on September 25 about his experiences.

(Courtesy Wikipedia Creative Commons)

In his talk, Khaldi stressed the rights of minorities while explaining his love of Israel. Muslims may practice their religion freely. Muslim women have the right to vote, unlike elsewhere in the Middle East. Fourteen Israeli Arabs are in the Knesset, one is on the Supreme Court, and four Arab parties participate in Israeli politics. Khaldi even likened the situation of Israeli Muslims to that of non-Christians living in the United States.

“They are becoming Israelis more than their parents and their grandparents,” said Khaldi. “They are brothers of the Palestinians, brothers of the Syrians and Jordanians and of course the Lebanese, but also Israel is their country.”

However, Khaldi is critical of the Arab faction in the Knesset. He claims that the Arab leadership hopes to convince Israeli Arabs that they are second-class citizens; the leadership discourages civil service instead of encouraging integration into Israel. Yet the higher unemployment rate among Arabs and the lower average-wages paid are undeniable. Khaldi does agree that Israel needs to increase its efforts to achieve integration and full equality.

Permeating the discussion was a sense of timeliness, of urgency, after the Palestinian Authority requested membership in the United Nations the previous week. On the peace process, Khaldi expressed Israel’s unyielding stance: “Change needs readiness. Change needs compromise. I’m not in a position here to tell you that Israel is right and the Palestinians are wrong, but in my eyes, I think the problem is on the Palestinian side.” While Israel is not perfect, it is ready to negotiate whatever the issue.

The discussion posed interesting questions about the position of Arabs in Israel. Khaldi exemplifies integration, and he believes strongly in Israel’s foreign policy. But it is hard to believe that other Arabs in Israel do not feel upset when their government stifles momentum for Palestinian statehood—unilateral action or not.

Following the discussion, The Yale Globalist interviewed Mr. Khaldi.

Q: Please describe the community in which you were raised. Did you grow up mainly with Bedouins, or did you have meaningful interaction with Jewish Israelis?

Yes, absolutely. I lived in a Bedouin village, all one tribe, but also my parents spent most of their time with a nearby Jewish kibbutz (or Jewish town), so it’s in between. I went to another school in another Arab village, so this is how I spent my time, but mostly in the village and of course the Jewish town.

Q: How did your family and friends react when you decided to join the foreign service?

They were very glad because to be diplomat is not an easy thing […] It comes out of effort and contribution more than anything else, and also investment. In a way also it was kind of sad because I would be away from them, but they supported; they were very glad, and it says something about where we are, our position and status as part of Israeli society. We are part of the country, we are part of this, we are not only in the military, we are not only in the workforce, but we also are representing the country. We are also the face of that country.

Q: You mentioned that anti-Israeli sentiment abroad surprised you, especially in San Francisco. Why?

Why? Because people knew little about the country. That what was very surprising. But from this very little that they knew, they judged. They were afraid from media, about taking land here or using information that [was] false in most cases but making a judgment while the situation is much more complex. It’s not just Israel and Palestinians. They were judging Israel only based on political reasons. And that was sad.

Q: Have you experienced discrimination personally at work or outside of work?

No.

Q: What can and should Israel do for non-Jews in a Jewish state?

Well invest more in infrastructure—roads, educational system, more integration on absorbing them into the government workforce. That’s it, because they are changing in a way. The government can’t do everything; they are doing by themselves. I think those are the things: education and absorbing them in the government workforce.

Q: Do you empathize with Palestinians seeking a state and basic rights?

Absolutely. Every Israeli Jew if you want to know wants two states, almost. Most Israeli Jews if you want to make the distinction are the same.

Q: Did Mahmoud Abbas do the right thing for the Palestinian people by seeking recognition at the United Nations?

I don’t thinks so. Listen, on principle, yes, he wants to achieve a state for them. So they should of course—the border issue, the right of return, the settlements, East Jerusalem, I think yes, but I think the way is wrong. You think about it yourself. If Hamas are against all the Palestinian Authority, against the whole idea of the two-state solution, so how can [they] first of all make peace at home, be unified, speak to the Israelis as one voice […] Only then you can go hand-by-hand with Israel after you discuss the issues—go to the UN, say “here we are. We solved all the issues. We just need your recognition, and of course a membership in the UN.” By the way, it happened in Sudan a few months ago, conflict with Southern Sudan and it happened a few years but only through dialogue. But here, the Palestinians don’t want to speak to us. So what you go to the UN, you recognize us as a state—then what? And then go back home and solve the issues with the borders? You can’t recognize a state without knowing what its border will be.

Q: Does it at least add momentum to the cause?

I want to hope that right now that they will choose really to give a chance and come back to negotiations, to open dialogue with Israel.

Q: Have you ever felt used as a spokesman for the Israeli Arab population on behalf of Israel?

First of all, I am not in a position to do that [because the Bedouins are a minority of Israeli Arabs], but I think that what I’m doing is an example for everybody who wants to join the foreign service. Come and do it. Israeli opinion—you know the Israeli-Arab community has different opinions also, that’s democracy; that’s a natural thing to have. If everybody think the same as I am? I don’t think so. But as a whole, I do believe that my case can reflect the desires of most, especially the young generation. We want to be there. We always will be different. I myself am not a perfect person.

Jeffrey Dastin’14 is in Saybrook College. Contact him at jeffrey.dastin@yale.edu.

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