Middle Eastern countries want to learn from Israel, the region’s only democracy, Israel’s first Arab Bedouin diplomat, Ishmael Khaldi, told an audience of around 65 people at an April 15 breakfast at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.
“We’re ready to speak with Iran or anybody who wants to speak to us about making peace,” said Khaldi, an advisor to Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Arab and Middle Eastern affairs. Following recent news in the Arab world, “the message is very clear. People want to live in a democracy. They don’t want a dictator for 30 years,” he said at the event, cosponsored by the Weintraub Israel Center, the Israel Consulate in Los Angeles, and the America-Israel Friendship League Tucson Chapter.
Israel has a multicultural society similar to the United States but neither country is perfect, said Khaldi. Twenty percent of the Israeli population is Arab, and “as a Bedouin I’m part of that,” he noted. “It’s a question of loyalty. I’m not a Zionist but I’m proud to be an Israeli.”
Khaldi lived in a Bedouin tent until he was 8 years old, walked eight miles round trip to school every day, and tended flocks of sheep. His family’s ties with its Jewish neighbors date back to the early days of Zionist pioneers from Eastern Europe who settled in the Galilee region in the 1920s.
Israeli Arabs are not equal to Jewish Israelis but it’s only been 60 years that the nation has existed, he said. “Does America have 100 percent equality? After 235 years of independence in this country, it was 2008 when an African- American became president. Can a woman be president [here]? People are still asking that question.”
Regarding his personal situation, Khaldi said that “Palestinians are my brothers. Israel is my country that takes care of me. I’m more conservative, closer to Chabad Orthodox Jews than Palestinians living in Ramallah who want to be more hippyish or modern.” And when he marries and has children, “I don’t want my future daughter wearing a mini-skirt like a girl I saw on the kibbutz.”
As an Israeli diplomat, Khaldi believes that negotiations for a two-state solution will be successful “if there’s a willingness,” despite such issues as settlements or the Palestinian right of return.
A big stumbling block to peace is that “Palestinian leadership is split,” said Khaldi. “Prime Minister [Mahmoud] Abbas is very weak. He can hardly visit Gaza. Since Hamas was elected there in January 2006 everything that was signed with Israel is null and void.”
Another major challenge for Israel, he said, is the possibility of Iran becoming a nuclear power. “Instead of dealing with the highest rate of prostitution in the world, the first thing Iranian President [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] did was say the Holocaust didn’t happen” and that Israel didn’t have a right to exist when he took office in 2005.
“We don’t know what will happen in the future,” said Khaldi. More education is necessary for all ethnic groups to be fully accepted in Israel. There’s discrimination toward Arabs, Russian Jews, gays and lesbians, among others, but “I have to build shoulder to shoulder with my fellow Israelis, whether they’re left wing or right wing we all have to work together.”