From Beduin shepherd to outspoken Israeli diplomat

The enticing story of Ishmael Khaldi, a Beduin who became FM Lieberman's adviser.

ishmael khaldi311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ishmael khaldi311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ishmael Khaldi is breaking new ground for Israel’s Beduin community. He grew up as a shepherd in the village of Khawalid, near the Sea of Galilee. But as a young man, a desire to roam took him to New York and other distant places. That journey has now taken him to the halls of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, where he is Israel’s most senior Beduin diplomat and a special adviser to the Foreign Minister on Arab affairs.
Khaldi has recounted this story in his new book “A Shepherd’s Journey.” He recently elaborated on the book and fielded questions about current affairs while hosting The Christian Edition in his home town in northern Israel.
ISRAEL’S BEDUIN population is divided between the 130,000 residents of the Negev and some 40,000 in the Galilee, although no census has ever confirmed their numbers. In the North, there are over 26 small tribes, with each village usually made up of one family or tribe. Beduin Arabs have traditionally been a nomadic people, following a version of Islam that does not stress mosque attendance.
“We are more secular because we used to move a lot as nomads, so we didn’t practice religion but had tribal rules that have provided guiding principles,” explained Khaldi.
Most of the Beduin in northern Israel began to connect with Jewish pioneers during the 1930s-40s. When Israel was established in 1948, the local Beduin started settling down. Over 90% in the north now live near a kibbutz or moshav. It has been a difficult transition for this nomadic society, but the Israeli government has been trying to assist them by building infrastructure and promoting a modern lifestyle. Still, Khaldi says the Israeli approach has not worked so well.
“A shepherd cannot become a high-tech engineer or diplomat overnight. We had to change our lifestyle. We want to join this modern society, but still keep our own heritage,” he said.
KHALDI GREW up in an average-sized Beduin family as the third of 11 brothers and sisters. Their poor village did not have a school, so he walked six kilometers to a nearby Arab village each day. He later attended the first Arab Christian high school in Haifa.
After graduating, Khaldi worked in a nearby kibbutz to earn money for college. “My parents encouraged education,” he said. During that time, his eldest brothers were in the IDF. Beduin are not drafted, but many volunteer for IDF combat and tracking units.
His work on the kibbutz introduced him to Jewish youth from North America. He made new friends and hosted them in his village. Eventually, Khaldi was invited to come to the United States.
“And that’s what I did. I only had a phone number of the brother of a friend of mine from the kibbutz. I was told he would be able to help me and to go there because there are lots of Israelis and Hebrew speakers,” he recalled.
“I did not tell my parents about my plans because if I did they would not let me go. But I went ahead and landed at JFK in New York early in the morning. But when I dialed the number my friend had given me, a lady answered, told me he was not there any more and hung up on me.”
“So what do you do now? It’s your first time outside your country. I was in New York City with almost no money and few words of English. I wanted to take the first plane back home. But then I thought about the tough conditions we Beduin grow up with, with no electricity, no running water, having to take care of our goats and sheep every day and feeding the chickens. That all helped me survive in New York. When I landed there and felt alone, I said to myself: ‘No fear, don’t give up, stay strong and keep going.’ And I kept going!” said Khaldi.
Khaldi ended up renting a room from a hassidic Jewish family in Brooklyn, which helped him make it through those tough early days. “This is where my love story with Chabad began,” he laughed.
For the first five days in their home, the family assumed Khaldi was Jewish simply because he was Israeli and spoke Hebrew.
But when Shabbat came, they were shocked to find he was an Arab, though it also excited them to have a ‘shabbas goy’ in the house.
“I explained to them that about 20% of Israel’s population is Arab. This made me think about how most people only know about Israel through the media, which unfortunately often portray Israel unfairly.” Khaldi encountered this bias even more during his later stint as a consul in San Francisco.
AFTER SURVIVING New York City for three months, Khaldi returned to Israel and attended Haifa University, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in political science and later a Master’s degree in international relations from Tel Aviv University. Afterwards, he served in the Israeli Border Police and worked for a while with the US Embassy in Tel Aviv.
In 1998 in Gaza, Khaldi served as translator for crucial meetings between US president Bill Clinton and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. He then served with the Israeli defense ministry until six years ago, when he decided to join Israel’s Foreign Service.
“Growing up, I always wondered about what I represent and where I belong, about my status and position in this country,” Khaldi reflected.
Khaldi started with the foreign ministry at the end of 2004. After six months of basic diplomatic training, he was sent to Gaza to be a spokesperson to the Arab world about the Disengagement of 8,000 Israeli citizens from Gaza. His assignment was to explain why the Israeli government was withdrawing. “Of course, it was in order to start a new process with the Palestinians, and for reconciliation,” he said.
“This was a little piece of history, because I was the first non-Jew to be a spokesperson for Israel in such a position,” he said.
Following Disengagement, Khaldi served with the North American division in the foreign ministry until July 2006, working on relations with the White House, federal government, Congress and individual states, where Israel has nine consulates.
“But then our fellow Muslims from Hizbullah in Lebanon decided in July 2006 to bombard this part of the country [the Galilee] with Iranian and homemade rockets for 34 days,” said Khaldi.
After UN Security Council resolution 1701 ended the Second Lebanon War, Khaldi was appointed deputy consul general in San Francisco in December 2006, the second ranking official at the Israeli mission.
“I went there full of excitement as the first from my community to be an Israeli diplomat. But I knew it was going to be tough work. I was not only representing my community but the government, which is very controversial for many people. And I was sent to one of the most politically opinionated places on earth, besides Israel – the San Francisco Bay area and Berkeley. Say “government” and they will hate you. Say “Israel” and they will kill you. I think it’s an extreme liberal Left,” he said.
“I always like to say that if the Israeli government made a mistake, it was in sending me,” Khaldi jokes, “who comes from a very conservative, non-religious background when it comes to family values, tradition, and heritage. Whatever I said, people would attack,” he said.
But Khaldi did connect with the Chabadniks and Evangelical Christians. “Christian communities in general have strong family values and a commitment to heritage. Meeting them made me feel that despite the extreme criticism in San Francisco, there are people still supporting Israel,” he said.
One time while speaking to a group of American leaders, Khaldi recalled a lady’s question about how he could be a Muslim and a Beduin representing a Jewish democracy while his family and village were not entitled to this democracy.
“This is when I decided to start writing, because people do not understand Israel. I had to explain to her about being equal or not equal or being a democracy or not a democracy, and that Israel is not a perfect country. Israel has its own problems. But I think in the 62 years of independence, Israel can be an example to the entire Western world when it comes to treating minorities fairly, freedom of religion, and so on,” he said.
After Benjamin Netanyahu returned as Israel’s prime minister last year, Khaldhi moved back to Israel at the request of Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to be his advisor on Arab affairs.
“This new position has brought lots of excitement. Honestly, at first I felt I was going to change the world,” enthused Khaldi. He met with former US officials, professors at UC Berkley, and people he disagreed with, asking them what Israel should do in the Middle East. What has Israel done wrong and what can be improved? “I would take notes, hoping to write some magic formula. I soon understood that I needed to ‘hold my horses,’ as they say in America. You can’t change the world by yourself.”
KHALDI FEELS that while Israel can mark over six decades as a thriving, diverse, democratic society, leading the world in many cutting-edge technologies, the Palestinians have a very divided leadership.
“Hamas in Gaza is calling for wiping Israel off the map, just like their sponsors in Iran, and to establish an independent Palestinian state on the remains. That is something humanity cannot tolerate. In the West Bank, there is also split leadership,” explained Khaldi.
“Israel is doing its part and saying clearly we want to make peace. But there are issues: the right of return, east Jerusalem, borders, settlements, many issues. In my eyes they’re not the real problem. The problem is there is no willingness from the Palestinians. They are not united.”
“So Israel wants to reach an agreement, but do you want to talk to Hamas in Gaza? They are part of this Palestinian future and state. We want to see them live in dignity in a Palestinian state, a two-state solution; Israel as a democracy side-by-side with the Palestinians as a democracy, but it’s not happening. Blaming each other doesn’t lead anywhere, and yet that’s been the case for a long time. I think the younger generation will be making the change.”
“The other thing is until now there are no direct talks. The Palestinians want preconditions. Look, if you want to go the negotiating table, you can’t set any preconditions. We need to talk. There is no other way. Palestinians and Israelis have to live next to each other. The Palestinians must understand that neither Iran nor Hizbullah will help them, but Israel will help them.'
On the question of whether Hamas will ever make peace, Khaldi was perfectly blunt. “The answer is no, absolutely not,” he insisted. “In January 2006 when Hamas was elected in Gaza, Israel said that’s fine if that’s the democratic choice among the Palestinians. We will go with it. We will talk to them, but only if they agree to three main conditions: Recognize Israel’s right to exist, which they refuse to do; stop the incitement against Israel’s Jews; and accept the agreements that Israel has signed with the PA. Hamas did not accept even one of these conditions. So I don’t see a chance for any agreement with Hamas,” concluded Khaldi.
As for Hamas being dislodged from Gaza, the answer lies with those Palestinians who really want change, he continued. “The change will come from those who spent enough time working on the farms, restaurants and construction sites in Israel, because they have been influenced by how open Israeli society is. And they know clearly that radicalism, fundamentalism and economic warfare can never bring success… It’s their responsibility to stand up and fight against Hamas and the other radical movements.”
On the problem of Islamic radicalization among Israel’s Arab community, Khaldi believes it is largely coming from outside the country. “They are trying to convince the Arab minority that Israel is discriminating against us. There are all kinds of anti-Israel, anti-government, anti-authority sentiments. I think it has to be stopped.”
Khaldi also commented on Arab fears about a nuclear Iran. “Yes they are very worried. Recently the US administration agreed to provide Kuwait with Patriot missiles. Saudi Arabia, which is the big regional rival of Iran, is more worried than anyone. If you remember a few weeks ago in The London Times, it was reported that Saudi Arabia agreed to give a northern corridor for Israeli planes to attack Iran’s nuclear plants. The Saudis are worried about this Iranian drive for power. The international community’s biggest threat is Iran.”