Arab and Jewish diplomats emphasize human engagement

Wednesday, July 5, 2006


     Almost always we send news only about citizens in the public peace process -- not government diplomats.
     Not today.

     Often and sadly,  Arab and Jewish citizens remain (1) dependent on governments and (2) spectators who don't understand the supreme importance of their engagement with each other in Change.
     Equally sadly, government professionals arrest their own ability to succeed by not recognizing, empowering and funding the public peace process.

     Today are two articles about two Israeli diplomats -- one Jewish, one Bedouin -- both unusual and inspiring.
     Each validates from a government and very human perspective how Change must happen through human relationships.
     Not just treaties and decrees.
     Read about these two men who just might finally maximize the government AND public processes to help true Change happen.

     Ismail Khaldi, age 35, will be the new Israeli vice consul general in San Francisco
     A Bedouin Arab, until he was 8, he slept in a tent with no electricity or running water.
     In boyhood he walked more than four miles to school and back every day.     
     The third of 11 children, he did his homework with the aid of an oil lamp and helped his family tend their flock of sheep and goats.
     The first Bedouin to graduate from Israels Foreign Service course and work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
     To say he is part of a new breed is an understatement.  It is also true.

     From the early 1900s Khaldi's family has a history of successful Arab-Jewish cooperation in the Holy Land.
     He knows what is possible.

     The Muslims and the Jews came from two different worlds then, he said, referring to the 1930s pre-state Israel.
     But they were able to build strong relations.
     Its a human story above everything its not political.
     "Its an important story because it shows how people of different backgrounds can live together if they have the same goal: to live.

     He recently spoke to a polarized crowd at the University of California, Berkeley
     He was able to convince the pro-Israel crowd and the pro-Palestinian crowd to go out for pizza after his talk.
     He said: I didnt expect to make a shidduch [a match, as in a relationship] or love story, but people should just talk and meet each other.
     "Im not coming to convince people to change their way of thinking, but I can at least try to talk to them about coexistence and talking to each other.

     Alexandra Wall is a gifted journalist.  Read her story about Ismail Khaldi in this week's press.

Published in j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California -- Friday June 30, 2006

From shepherd to diplomat

Israeli Bedouins odyssey leads to S.F. consulate

by alexandra j. wall

    Yaakov Setty, 43, serves the Israeli foreign service in Egypt and is clear on the paralyzing disconnect between Jews and Arabs.
     "Condescension" is how he describes people's attitudes toward the "other."
     "We don't take them into account at all," he preaches, "we don't know them enough, we don't invest effort in studying their thinking.  We
treat them like an anecdote, a spot on a talk show.  But these are giant, multifaceted, weighty cultures."
     Setty says: "From my experience, it is possible to change the other side's views through dialogue and offering respect.  The fact is that despite the difficulties, the relations have registered achievements and breakthroughs."
     Read as the diplomat undoes old stereotypes and describes how we Jews and Arabs mirror one another in our attitudes and equal humanity.

Published in Ma'ariv -- Wednesday, July 5, 2006

by Jacky Hugi

Yaakov Setty, the press officer at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, stood in the lobby of an Egyptian newspaper's editorial board, and waited.
  Suddenly, he was approached by an unfamiliar person, whose face lit up and he showered him with kisses and embraces.  Setty greeted him in fluent Egyptian Arabic.  For a few seconds the two exchanged compliments and kisses, until someone realized the problem.

Apparently, the visitor mistook the Israeli diplomat for Mohammed Salmawi, chairman of the Egyptian writers association.  This would not
have been worthy of mention, if Salmawi had not been one of the most vociferous opponents of the peace with Israel.  "He and I are both bald,
so the man got confused," said Setty.  Instead of an opponent of Israel, he found an Israeli diplomat.  "I couldn't stop laughing," he recalls.

Setty, 43, is considered one of the foreign service's most polished Arabic speakers, although he was born in Israel.  This ability could be
seen on live broadcast, during the press conference in which President Mubarak hosted Ehud Olmert a month ago in Sharm el-Sheikh.  Setty served as the Egyptian president's interpreter into Hebrew, and was complimented by both sides.  But as someone who serves in Cairo, is
fluent in the local language and is considered a permanent guest at performances of Umm Kulthum's songs-he says that the State of Israel
does very little in its relations with the Arabs.

"We don't take them into account at all," he preaches, "we don't know them enough, we don't invest effort in studying their thinking.  We
treat them like an anecdote, a spot on a talk show.  But these are giant, multifaceted, weighty cultures."

The Egyptian mediation in the affair of the kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit has suddenly revealed that Israel could also find itself
dependent on Egypt.  As of now, the Egyptian mediation looks like the only channel of negotiation that could save the hostage.  Setty believes
that for the most part, the State of Israel looks upon its neighbors with condescension-and it is completely Israel's loss.
All because of the distance

Yaakov Setty represents an unusual voice in the Israeli establishment.  He believes that Israel should upgrade its relations
with Egypt to the level of strategic relations, similarly to those existing with other friendly countries, such as Turkey, for example.
The arguments raised by MK Yuval Steinitz, according to which Egypt is engaged in a constant process of preparation for war, anger him.  "I
have no interest in arguing with him," responds Setty, "the opinions he voices are regrettable.  I would reply to him as I reply to people here
who talk that way about Israel.  The Arab proverb says: What one sees with one's eyes is better than hearsay."

Q: This does not have to be a contradiction.  It is possible to improve relations on one side, and arm on the other.

"Egypt is a sovereign country.  It can decide whom its enemies are and how to treat them.  We would also not like it if others intervened
in the question whether we want nuclear weapons or not."

Q: What is the attitude in Egypt towards Israel?

"Israel is perceived as a strong, advanced, orderly and democratic country.  But besides this, their perception of us here is a mirror
image of Israel's attitude towards them: Lack of knowledge, ignorance and prejudice.  All this stems from insufficient contact and
insufficient exchange of information.  True, they do not open their media to Israelis, and do not permit students to visit here, but before
you blame them, you must correct yourself.  Often I am talking to an Egyptian, and when it becomes apparent that I am an Israeli, the
reaction is 'you don't look like one.'  Because of the distance, the image of the Israeli he has in his mind is created by the media."

Q: Why are there manifestations of anti-Semitism in the Egyptian press?

"Just as there are anti-Semites everywhere in the world, there are [anti-Semites] here too.  From my experience, it is possible to change
the other side's views through dialogue and offering respect.  The fact is that despite the difficulties, the relations have registered
achievements and breakthroughs."

Q: What interests them most about Israel?

"Matters concerning the Jewish religion.  The common questions relate to the Sabbath commandments, for example, when it is permissible to ride and when not.  They look for similarities with Islam, and because such similarities exist, it is easier for them to understand my answers.
Fortunately for me, I come from a traditional family and can give them answers."

"One of his great loves is Arabic music: Umm Kulthum, Farid el-Atrash, Abdul Halim Hafez and Abdul Wahab.  "I grew up on them, the words speak to me," he says.  "This is the music that my father listened to at home. I regularly attend concerts with the songs of Umm Kulthum that are
staged by the Egyptian Opera.  Incidentally, the Egyptians are very glad to hear that performances of Arabic music have also become a trend in

Q. So you practically live like an Egyptian.

"Mostly, yes. I do not look at life in Egypt from the viewpoint of a diplomat. I came here in order to serve the country, out of a deep conviction that connections between Egypt and the Israelis are basic, and can be made only by putting down roots in Egyptian society."

Q. How do you define your identity?

"I speak, read, listen to and understand the Arabic language. The culture in which I grew up in home is Arabic, and I am a consumer of Arab culture. Many Egyptians define me as Arab-Jewish, and I accept that. In practice, I am a Jewish-Arab citizen of the State of Israel."

Q. Is there hope for relations between the two countries?

"I am convinced that in the end everyone, we and they, will understand, that there is no other choice. When you only imagine what will happen in our region when there is another atmosphere, without conflict, you realize how important it is to strive for that. Many people in Israel say that my attitude is naive. People in Egypt ask: Look, you've done your part and the peace process isn't going forward, so why did you come again? The answer I always give, in interviews and on television programs, is: 'If I weren't optimistic, I wouldn't have come here again.'"