Perspectives of a Bedouin Diplomat: Ishmael Khaldi

2 July 2019 Leighton G. Luke, Research Manager, Indian Ocean Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • Israel is not perfect, but it is a successful, open, multi-ethnic, multi-religious country, in which the non-Jewish communities increasingly feel that they are a part of Israeli society.
  • Although the security threats faced by Israel have changed and are not going to go away, the range of common threats means that there is also a growing acceptance in the region of the existence of Israel.
  • Despite the contested leadership in the Palestinian community and difficulties at the political level, Israelis and Palestinians are working together at the ground level.
  • As a minority within a minority, the Bedouin community faces a number of particular challenges, including the need to preserve traditional values while successfully managing the changes posed by modern technology.
  • The Middle East is going through a period of great turbulence and any lasting change can only come from the people of the region; it cannot be imposed on them by outside powers.


As the first Bedouin to serve in the Israeli diplomatic corps, Ishmael Khaldi brings a unique perspective to events in his home country and the Middle East. Future Directions International spoke with Mr Khaldi about developments in the region, the prospects for peace, including a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the challenges that are encountered by the Bedouin community.


FDI:  Thank for you for speaking with us today, Ishmael. To start, can you give us a quick overview of the circumstances of post-independence Israel?

IK: The state of Israel was established in 1948 and has just celebrated 71 years of independence. Looking back over those seven decades – a relatively short time – it is possible to see that Israel has come a long way in terms of economic development and building a strong, solid and diverse society while facing a number of security challenges. I think that is especially the case in terms of the number of very successful start-up companies that are leading the way in technological developments and innovations, especially in ways to improve agricultural output. These developments are not only useful in Israel; they also make a difference overseas. I was posted to Africa for two-and-a-half years, and I would often see the work being done by Israeli companies there to improve agricultural production and the quality of the goods produced. They are helping to making a difference to people’s lives there and that is a very good thing.

In terms of society, Israel is considered to be a Jewish state – a homeland for Jewish people from around the world – and, indeed, over the last 71 years, Jewish people have come to Israel and made a home there; it is a free and open society. Even just among its Jewish community, Israel is a multicultural society: there are Jews from Yemen, America, Russia and many other places, all living in Israel. Added to that, of course, are the 21 per cent of the Israeli population who are Arab.

In terms of security, even before 1948, Israel faced security threats. From 1917, the Palestinians and other Arab nations rejected the idea of the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the historical region of Palestine, as had been supported in the Balfour Declaration. In 1948, Israel was established and, since then, there have been wars, military operations and terrorist attacks against Israel, in Israeli cities, and around the world; the most well-known of that latter category are probably the attack against the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires in 1994. These security challenges kept Israel in a state of alert and required the use of all its intelligence and security resources to protect its citizens while, at the same time, remaining open to reconciliation. That happened in 1978 at Camp David, in 1979 with Egypt, in 1994 with Jordan, and even with the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Oslo the year before that. That is the best way to keep Israel safe but, even if there is peace, it doesn’t mean that there will be no more threats. Unfortunately, that is not the case and I don’t see that changing; Israel will always have to live with a certain threat level. In the past, we may have faced other countries’ armies but today it is different non-state groups that are posing threats: extremists such as Islamic Jihad or the like. It is a continuing challenge.

FDI: Do you think that even though the threat has changed over time, more people and countries around the Middle East are now accepting that Israel is there to stay?

IK: Yes, I think it is absolutely the case, especially among the younger generations, but also among the leaders of some – but not all – of the countries in the region, that Israel is accepted as a fact. Those people and those leaders are moving away from the long-time – I’ll call it a “dream”, for want of a better word – that Israel could be eliminated, or would cease to exist. Part of the reason for that change is that we are facing some common threats in a way that has not previously been the case. The dangers posed by movements such as Al-Qaida, ISIS and others, as well as by Iran, if it were to acquire a nuclear capability, are not only threats to Israel, but also to those other countries. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, for example, see those dangers, too, and are more willing than ever before to co-operate with Israel.

But not everything is changing. Looking at it from a civil society perspective, one still sees people opposing the participation of Israel in things like the Olympic Games, arts and cultural events – including this year’s edition of the Eurovision song contest, which was hosted by Israel.

I, personally, have experienced such discrimination. I have had people prevent me from speaking at events because they want to protest against Israeli Government policies. But these are fairly minor things, really, and I do think that the majority of people, all around the world, understand those common dangers. I remember when I was on my first diplomatic posting to the United States, people would ask me some tough questions about Israeli policies, and I would say to them, ‘Israel is not perfect; just like any other country, it can’t be expected to be this place where everything is perfect’. Israelis themselves complain about government policies and criticise them. I think that is the beauty of a democracy; that such freedom is possible.

As I said before, just over twenty percent of the population are Arab and I come from a community within that community. As a Bedouin, I am a minority within a minority and, like any other community, we have our own issues and face challenges. We were concerned, for instance, that as an officially Jewish state, the government was giving priority to Jews, but things are changing. In the Arab community, many among the younger generation are feeling differently about things than their parents and their grandparents, who lived in the years before and soon after the establishment of Israel. In those days, they had a great sense of solidarity with the Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian, Jordanian and Iraqi people while, at the same time, they became Israeli citizens. So, they were living in a country that was in a state of war with their brothers and sisters in those other countries. But that feeling is changing. I think that majority of the people who make up the non-Jewish communities in Israel feel that they are a part of Israeli society. They and their children go college and university. It is not uncommon to see at some of the leading hospitals and universities in Israel, for instance, that the heads of department are Arabs and non-Jews. Like anywhere else, they are doctors or academics and are simply being judged upon their skills, not by their skin colour or religion.

FDI: Building upon that, what do you see as the greatest challenges facing the Bedouin community in Israel, both now and into the near future?

IK: As I said before, the Bedouin community is a minority within the Arab minority. We are small in number and we are different because we used to be nomads and shepherds. We are located in two parts of Israel: the south, in the Negev Desert area, where around 180,000 of us live, and in the north, where I come from, live another 60,000. The northern communities are considered more settled and organised, but we are all going through the same transitional processes as our lifestyles change because the world is always changing. I think that the biggest challenge will be preserving our culture and our values. We probably won’t be living in tents anymore, so I think that keeping alive our traditional values, such as the importance of the family and respect for our elders, will become more difficult as the tribal structure itself is slowly disappearing. It will be a challenge, and we probably won’t be able to preserve everything, but we should try to at least keep the best aspects and, most important of all, respect for others.

FDI: In what ways is modern technology affecting or changing the traditional tribal structures?

IK: Like most people of my generation, in Israel and elsewhere, I grew up in a very different social and technological environment from what we have now. Now, for instance, everyone watches TV, and they have smart phones with all the apps, and, at least in Bedouin society, I can see that the technology is eroding societal values.

I remember when I was young, that if we would even see an elder, we would be very quiet and just walk on by, nothing more. In school, we would never even think of sitting next to a girl. Not for religious reasons, but just out of respect – and also out of shyness, too. Today, boys and girls walk together through the village. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with that, either; it’s just one of the ways in which the world is changing. But we do need to make sure that we do not lose our respect for others; it has already begun to disappear. That is not because people are becoming bad or rude, it’s just that they don’t see such a need for it.

In a way, our teenagers and young people are confused about their identity. Are they Bedouins, like their parents and grandparents? Are they going to stay in our villages? Are they going to move elsewhere? We can’t keep them there, because they have to compete with their neighbours, and with people from the Jewish and Arab communities, and, in the global environment that we have now, with people from around the world.

I see two things happening and, again, I am talking from a personal perspective. In the Bedouin community, on the one hand, we see that confusion; it is a society that is changing. But, at the same time, we are also seeing the growth of a stronger attachment to the concept of the tribe. People are certain to tell you what tribe they come from and the feeling of belonging to a particular tribe has got stronger. Beyond that, though, as a community we can be quite lost.

FDI: The countries around Israel are also experiencing change and a great deal of uncertainty. How is that affecting Israel’s security?

IK:  First, the threat is immediate: just look at Syria, for instance. Since 1973, our two countries have been in a state of war. At the same time, though, we knew that even though it was a dictatorship there was someone who was in charge there, and not a single bullet was fired into Israel. After 2011, though, that has no longer been the case. There has been instability with different groups and our security has been affected. We have seen a similar thing in Sinai, too, although security has improved because the el-Sisi Government is fighting more effectively against terror organisations that are operating there.

Of course, added to that, is the uncertainty that it brings. I don’t know what is going to happen in the future, but it is certainly not the “Arab Spring” that people were thinking that it might be. It will take time for the people of the region to be clear about the direction in which they want to go. I think that, in many cases, they are going to end up going down the same path as Lebanon did during the 1975-90 civil war. I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but that is how it looks to me. Look at what is happening in Sudan right now. On one side, there is the military and, on the other, the opposition. Countries such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are trying to help there. They can certainly try to help, but it is ultimately up to the local populations and local leaders to decide what path they want their countries to take.

FDI: How do you see Iran and what do you think Iran’s support for anti-Israeli groups means for Israel’s relationship with Saudi Arabia?

IK: Well, until the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran and Israel had no problems with each other; we were not enemies. During the Shah’s rule, we had an embassy in Tehran and had good relations. Everything changed when Khomeini took over. We believe that the vast majority of Iranians want the same things out of life as everyone else and really have nothing against Israel. The problem is with the regime. It spews out this poisonous venom of hate, which it makes concrete by giving support to terrorist organisations like Islamic Jihad, Hamas and the like. The Iranian regime seems to act as a bank for any group that opposes Israel, dispensing money and ammunition. They have done that with Hezbollah. The Iranian regime is clear about its goal of extending the “Shiite Crescent”. Much has been written about the activities of the Revolutionary Guards Corps in Syria and elsewhere. The role of Iran is essentially destructive, rather than actually trying to build anything, even though it may be seen by some as just a case of wanting to spread the Shia faith. But that is not true. If one only wants to spread the Shiite doctrine, why is it accompanied by missiles? If one wants to win hearts and minds, that isn’t done with force or support for terrorists.

I mentioned previously that the Saudis see a common threat in these extremist movements and in the Iranian regime. The regime in Tehran is not only opposed to Israel, it is also opposed to the Saudis, the Gulf states and others. It gives support to the Houthis in Yemen, who are happy to fire rockets into civilian targets in Saudi Arabia.

FDI: Given all of that, will the enemy of my enemy become my friend?

IK: That is an age-old rule; there is no doubt about that, but that is not to say that the Saudis will become some sort of Zionists. I think that they remain deeply committed to the cause of the Palestinians and that they will remain that way for as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stays unresolved. I also think that the Saudis are happy to co-operate with Israel when it comes to security matters and, so, the enemy of my enemy is becoming more of a friend. Israel is happy to meet with the Saudis; we don’t expect them to come and make peace with us tomorrow but, if they – and other countries – have something creative to offer to help resolve the conflict, then we are happy to work together, perhaps in a roundtable situation. It’s important to be constructive together.

FDI: Speaking of Palestine, can you see a time when the Israel-Palestine situation will be resolved?

IK: That’s a bit like being a fortune teller, isn’t it? But, yes, I do believe that it will be. Israel wants it resolved and the majority of Israelis would like it to be resolved as well. We started the process back in 1993, to establish a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel. The hope is for a peaceful, democratic government and open society, and it’s true to say that there have been some bumps along the way and that there are still some bumps in the road that have to be negotiated, and it will take time, but I definitely think that it will be possible to find an acceptable resolution.

FDI: What do you see as the main problems confronting the Palestinian community politically? What are the implications of those problems for finding a lasting settlement?

IK: Well, to reach an agreement on the political level, you need leadership that has authority and the trust of its people, but the Palestinians themselves are split. On the one hand, you have the Palestinian Authority led, until 15 years ago, by Yasser Arafat and, since then, by Mahmoud Abbas. In January 2006, Hamas won the elections in Gaza and took control democratically. Initially, they were in agreement but they soon clashed with Arafat and Fatah and, now, Palestinian Authority personnel – and even Mahmoud Abbas himself – are not allowed to go to Gaza. So, there are two different leaderships there and there is also the Palestinian diaspora. Farouk Kaddoumi often speaks on behalf of the Palestinians who are living in Lebanon, for instance. Kaddoumi is one of the historic figures from the PLO, alongside Arafat, and he is against everything. He is against the Oslo Accords, and any agreement, in fact. Kaddoumi is from Gaza, but he refuses to go there. So, the leadership is contested: there is Kaddoumi; there is Hamas, which is supported by Iran; and there is the Palestinian Authority, which is unable to do as much as it perhaps could. It is a very real problem. As Israelis, who do we negotiate with? It comes back to that confusion and lack of trust; it’s a real problem.

But it doesn’t mean that a solution can’t be found. On the ground, the Israeli and Palestinian authorities are working together. Their security forces, for instance, co-operate to prevent terrorist attacks. Also, we have seen an Israeli workers’ union working together with a Palestinian union to help address some of the issues experienced by Palestinians who travel into Israel each day to work. So, we can work together and co-operation is taking place. I think that the best approach is to avoid laying blame and to keep doing the best that we can.

FDI: We touched on this previously, when we spoke of that growing wish for change among the people of the region. Even if it might be quite gradual or maybe not even particularly evident at this stage, how do you see it playing out?

IK: The region is going through a period of great turbulence, and any lasting change will have to come from within the region; it can only come from the people of the region and cannot be imposed on them by outside powers. It will be led by small, civil society movements, as has already been seen in places like Egypt and Tunisia. It will happen in some countries more than in others, but, regardless, there will be change; change is coming. It will even happen in Saudi Arabia and we already seeing changes there. Just last year, the Saudi Government finally allowed women to drive.

I do hope that it won’t be violent and that it doesn’t provoke more conflict and civil wars. I would like to see greater agreement and reconciliation between different communities and for more open societies, because after all, mutual respect is a basic societal value, even if it is not being seen as much today as it was in the past. So, I hope that there will be more respect for each other; that opposition groups and governments will embrace processes leading to greater democratisation and openness while working to prevent extremism. I hope that is what will happen. There really is no other way. Yes, there will still be challenges, and people will still be fiercely protective of their cultures, but hopefully that can be done while still being open to others.

FDI: Ishmael, thank you very much for your time and your insights today. Your perspectives and experiences have given us a great deal to think about. Thank you for that.  

IK: Thank you; you’re very welcome.




About the Interviewee: Ishmael Khaldi is the first Bedouin to serve in the Israeli diplomatic corps and is currently a Counsellor in the Civil Society Affairs section of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mr Khaldi has had postings to Africa and the United States, where he served as Deputy Consul-General in San Francisco. He has also served as a policy advisor to then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Avigdor Lieberman. 

Mr Khaldi grew up in the small, traditional Bedouin village of Khawaled, near Haifa. As the third of eleven children, his childhood was similar to many in his community; there was no running water or electricity and the family was dependent on the income generated from raising sheep and goats. Lacking a school in his town, he walked three kilometres each way to attend school in a neighbouring community.

Mr Khaldi earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Haifa and a master’s degree in political science and international relations from Tel Aviv University. He has served in the Israeli Ministry of Defence, Israeli Police and in the Israel Defence Forces as a political analyst.

Mr Khaldi has initiated an advocacy project called “Hike and Learn with Bedouins in the Galilee” that has brought thousands of young Jewish Israelis to the area, to learn more about Bedouin culture and history. Mr Khaldi was inspired to become a diplomat by the people that he met through the programme.



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