Ishmael Khaldi spoke to a group of Sussex students on 31 January. Khaldi is the senior-most Bedouin, a nomadic tribe of Arabs, to work for the Israeli diplomatic service.
With recent mass protests in Tunisia and Egypt, Khaldi claims that Arabs across the Middle East “want to live like in London or Tel Aviv”.
Speaking as a representative of the Israeli government, he advocated for Israel to be a model for future democracies in the Middle East, asserting that Israeli minorities have more rights than any other minority in the Middle East.
Repeatedly Khaldi criticised western media for focusing more heavily on Israel’s shortcomings than those of other countries. While admitting that Israel does make mistakes, he claims that the BBC’s and CNN’s reports on Israel “are wrong and unfair”.
Providing an anecdote of the hardworking Palestinian who wakes up at four in the morning to go work in Israel, Khaldi claims that Israeli and Palestinian co-operation is crucial. However, when asked why Israel was increasingly importing foreign labourers from Asia, he brushed it off as being undesirable but a “matter of security.”
Khaldi recognised the perils of the fact that the Arab minority shares common heritage with Israel’s enemies, but argues that Israeli-Arabs are feeling increasingly Israeli. He backed this up by evoking the rise in the representation of female Arab-Israeli volunteers in the National Service and the presence of the first Muslim judge in Israel.
Khaldi has had to come to terms with a conflict of identity being a Bedouin-Muslim-Israeli – a minority in a minority. Having grown up in a tent until he was eight and representing Israeli interests in San Francisco, he became aware of the difficulties of living in a place which conflicts with one’s traditional values.
Khaldi joined the Israeli foreign service in 2004 and was the spokesperson for disengagement from Gaza for three months – a programme that he still sees as viable if the people of Gaza and the West Bank elect a single, unified “moderate leadership”.
With multiple Israelis amongst the audience asking bold questions, Khaldi was confronted with the issue of the Arab minority feeling like second-class citizens. He responded that he did not believe that this was the predominant view among Arab-Israelis and that the use of rhetoric such as “from the river to the sea” represented a minority within the community.
Ishmael Khaldi manoeuvred around difficult questions pertaining to the gridlocked conflict, attempting to impart the message that “Israel is willing to negotiate and solve the problem one-on-one with the Palestinians.”