Israel’s most interesting diplomat just got a historic promotion. The 34-year-old George Deek will soon become the first Arab Christian ambassador in Israeli history. Deek, who is a former Fulbright fellow and an expert in international law, isn’t getting one of the easier postings either: He’ll be Israel’s lead representative in Azerbaijan, a Muslim-majority country that borders Iran and has been at war with its neighbor Armenia for over 25 years.
Deek seems like he’s up to the task. He’s been called “Israel’s best diplomat,” and an address he gave in September 2014 for the launch of a book by the prestigious Israeli historian Benny Morris, when Deek was serving as chargé d’affaires in Norway, has been hailed as the best ever delivered by an Israeli diplomat. Tablet columnist Lee Smith moderated a discussion with Deek at the Hudson Institute in 2015 and later called Deek “one of the most original thinkers I’ve ever had the pleasure to speak with.” He’s known for his poise and equanimity, two important qualities in a would-be ambassador: In March 2016, Deek responded to a jeering crowd in a UC Davis lecture hall by calmly writing out an appeal for dialogue on a nearby chalkboard.
The young ambassador’s grandfather was an electrician from Jaffa who fled to Lebanon in advance of the 1948 Middle East war. But Deek’s grandfather then made the highly unusual decision to eschew refugee status and return to the new State of Israel after the defeat of the invading Arab armies. In his speeches and in a 2015 Tablet profile, the new ambassador stressed his belief that Arabs in Israel could stake out a middle ground between assimilation and separatism, just as his grandfather did: “There’s a third way,” Deek told Israeli journalist Adi Schwartz. “We can be proud of our identity and at the same time live as a contributing minority in a country who has a different nationality, a different religion, and a different culture than ours.” In his career and his public statements, Deek has navigated the many cognitive dissonances that come with being a member of Israel’s Arab minority who has thrived within a society that wasn’t really created with his identity or well-being in mind—as Lee Smith wrote, “It occurred to me during the interview that the way Deek sees it, Israel is the pattern of a revolutionary idea.”
The question is, can Deek now navigate the diplomatic minefield of the southern Caucasus?
Azerbaijan has been in a state of war with neighboring Armenia over the breakaway republic of Nagorno-Karabakh pretty much as long as both countries have existed as independent states—the Iranian- and Russian-supported Armenians effectively occupy about one-fifth of Azerbaijan’s internationally recognized territory, and the situation often threatens to escalate back into all-out war. Although it is majority Shiite, Azerbaijan has a number of long-simmering disputes with Iran and the country’s autocratic regime is an enthusiastic, if uncareful, purchaser of Israeli arms: In April, a propagandistic music video revealed that the Azerbaijani military had acquired Israeli-made “suicide drones” for its arsenal. That’s not even the most astonishing Israeli-Azerbaijani drone scandal of recent years: In 2017, a visiting team from the Israeli arms manufacturer Aeronautics Defense Systems carried out a live demonstration of its Orbiter 1K drone by having it fire on an Armenian position in Nagorno-Karabakh.
If nothing else, Deek is unlikely to be bored in Baku.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.