From Bedouin shepherd to Israeli diplomat
A remarkable envoy talks about the Arab-Israeli conflict
Ishmael Khaldi, who visited Chico State University last week, has always led an anomalous life. As a member of a nomadic Bedouin tribe from northern Israel, he’s not like other Arabs, and as a Muslim citizen of Israel, he’s obviously not like the Jews who run and largely own the country they refer to as a Jewish state.
He is, you might say, a double outsider—a member of a minority within a minority. And yet today, at the age of 36, he is a prominent Israeli diplomat, the deputy consul-general for the Pacific Northwest region of North America, the first Bedouin to hold such a high position in the Ministry of Foreign Service.
The third of 11 children, he lived in a tent until he was 8, studying by lantern light at night and shepherding the family’s flock of sheep and goats by day. He walked five miles to attend grammar school.
Taking advantage of the educational opportunities his country offered, he obtained a bachelor’s degree from Haifa University and a master’s from Tel Aviv University. He worked as a policeman, an American Embassy employee for three years, and an Israeli intelligence officer serving in Gaza before training to join the Israeli Foreign Service.
His job is to represent Israel to the world, including the Arab world of which he is a member, and he seems to relish it. He takes a lot of flak from Arabs who see him as a collaborator and mouthpiece for Zionist oppression, he says. “It’s hard. … But Israel’s future is my future.”
In fact, the Bedouins of northern Israel—they now number 50,000—long ago threw in their lot with the Jewish state, believing it offered them more opportunities. Today, though young Bedouins are not required to perform military service, 75 percent of them voluntarily do so.
Khaldi clearly enjoys talking to students, and even dresses the part. For his appearances Friday before two of professor John Crosby’s political-science classes, he wore jeans, sneakers and an untucked brown shirt—not your usual diplomatic garb.
He’s a lean man in the Barack Obama mode: close-cropped black hair, chiseled features, intense brown eyes under hooded lids. Like most Israelis, he’s multilingual; Arabic is his first language, but he also speaks Hebrew and English fluently, as well as a bit of Spanish.
He thinks of himself as an exemplar of the diversity of modern Israel, a multicultural and multireligious society whose 7.3 million citizens are a mix of both indigenous Jews and Jewish immigrants from all over the world and the indigenous Arab-Israelis who make up 20 percent of the population.
Khaldi is a soft-spoken but fierce defender of his country, and when he talked to students last week, he insistently reminded them that Israel has been under attack since its creation. “More than 60 years after Israel was established,” he said at one point, “it is still fighting for its existence, for the right to exist.”
The most recent battle took place in late December and January, when Israeli forces bombarded and then invaded Gaza, the tiny, densely populated Palestinian enclave controlled by the radical-militant group Hamas. More than 1,000 Palestinian civilians died in the assault, and countries worldwide roundly condemned the invasion.
Khaldi didn’t apologize for the invasion, but he also wasn’t sure it was successful, in the sense of providing a victory for Israel. It was another battle in a long war, he said, and people die in war. “That’s the way it is. It’s sad.”
Challenged by several students on the subjects of checkpoints in the West Bank and the combination fence and wall separating Israel from Palestinian lands, Khaldi reiterated that Israel is only trying to protect itself, especially from suicide bombers.
Hamas, he insisted, is dedicated to the destruction of Israel—it’s written into the group’s charter. For years, it has been firing rockets at Israeli cities, killing Israeli citizens and forcing residents to live in a constant state of fear. That’s one critical difference between Israel and Hamas, he said: Israel tries to avoid causing civilian casualties, while Hamas purposely targets innocent civilians for death.
When the number of rocket attacks increased in December, Israel “tried to reach an agreement with Hamas to stop the rockets, but it didn’t work.” So it attacked.
The conflict will continue, Khaldi said, for as long as Palestinians continue to attack Israel. Eventually, he said, there will be a two-state solution, but “that will happen only when the Palestinians stand up against the radicals. … The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza want a good life. The vast majority of Palestinians are not Israel’s enemies. Israel’s enemy is Hamas and radical terrorism.”
He acknowledges that both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict “have made mistakes in the past. There have been many missed opportunities. The question now is what do we do in the future?”
He also acknowledged that recent Israeli elections—in which four different parties have emerged as power centers, and the chances of forming a coalition government are slim—have only made matters more confusing. “It’s kind of a circus, I have to admit,” he said, but it also again shows how diverse Israel really is.
He agrees that it’s “a challenge” for the U.S. government to work with a country that has had five different governments in 10 years and is so fractious that it can’t even agree on who’s in charge. Patience, he said, is the only answer. “The Middle East has its own pace. … We have to be hopeful. There’s no alternative.”