DIPLOMATICALLY SPEAKING:
ENVISIONING A SEMITIC COMMONWEALTH

by Jamil Khoury  •  March 1st, 2017

Semitic: Relating to the ancient peoples of southwest Asia who spoke the Semitic languages, primarily Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic, as well as their descendants and Diasporas.

Commonwealth: A nation, state, or political unit, or a union of constituent states, united by tacit agreement of the people, and established for the common good.  

Semitic Commonwealth: A nation or state, or a union of states and/or jurisdictions, located within the territory of 1947 British Mandate Palestine, and predicated respectively upon Jewish and Palestinian national identities and self-determination.

In conceiving a staged readings series of plays written by Arab and Jewish playwrights, the words “Semitic” and “Commonwealth” conjoined rather seamlessly in my mind. We set out to use storytelling, and the work of six playwrights of conscience, to explore the human toll of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Eschewing the dictates of “balance” and “moral equivalency,” our aim was to illuminate the personal price paid by those most affected.  

I’ve been known to suggest, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that the theatre company my husband and I co-founded, Silk Road Rising, is America’s only theatre company with a foreign policy. Or at the very least, a rather expansive definition of cultural diplomacy. Theatre makers can be policy wonks too. Chalk it up to my being an alumnus of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. But beyond the dramaturgical and aesthetic considerations of curating a play series, I’m compelled to ponder the political contours of my hoped for, yet hypothetical, Semitic Commonwealth.   

I’m particularly intrigued by seven distinct scenarios, variations of which have been envisioned and debated by academics, activists, politicians, diplomats, and dreamers alike. But before presenting any bill of fare, I must clarify my decision to reference Jews and Palestinians, as opposed to Jews and Arabs or Israelis and Palestinians. If Palestinian nationalism foregrounds a specifically Palestinian national identity within a broader Arab world context, and Zionism foregrounds a specifically Jewish national identity within an Israeli state context, then the central plaintiffs in this trial are Palestinians and Jews. (Full disclosure: I’m generally wary of nationalism, but I fully recognize its potency and durability.) I’d be remiss not to add that there are other litigants to this discord, chiefly the United States, and also the European Union, the Arab and Islamic blocs, the Jewish and Palestinian Diasporas, and increasingly Russia.       

Suffice to say, both populations are growing and neither will “disappear.” So cynically speaking, they’re stuck with each other. Ideally that’s a good thing! The policy objective becomes one of reasonable accommodation, advancing goals of mutual self-determination and self-defense, ending military occupation and asymmetrical power (Israel over Palestine), and achieving security, dignity, and a just peace. Resolution may be postponed, but it’s still inevitable, and remains highly incentivized by the world community. If forward motion leads the way, these ancient Levantine communities are poised for a windfall of prosperity.   

In a Semitic Commonwealth, policies that regulate immigration, right of return, and refugee resettlement would be equitable and mutually sustainable. They would not privilege Jews at the expense of Palestinians, but would enable livable environments, sensible development, environmental responsibility, territorial contiguity, and unprejudiced allocation of resources. The commonwealth would guarantee universal access to religious and holy sites, and the preservation and protection of antiquities and archeological sites. It should also be noted that whatever “end of conflict” agreement the parties arrive at, Jerusalem will likely serve as either a unified capital or a shared capital, be that one jurisdiction, two jurisdictions, or multiple jurisdictions.

As for the aforementioned seven scenarios, they are as follows:

  1. Two fully independent, sovereign, and cooperative states. In this scenario there’d be a Jewish state with a fully-enfranchised Palestinian minority (Israel), and a Palestinian state with a fully-enfranchised Jewish minority (Palestine). Citizens of each state would enjoy equal rights under the law, regardless of ethnicity or religion. There’d be free movement of peoples and goods between both states, and Arabic and Hebrew would both be official languages.

  2. Federal or confederal states. A union of states, either Israel and Palestine or Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. In a federal system, each state would be separate but united under one central government for purposes of inter-state and external affairs (somewhat akin to the United States). In the confederal system, each state would be separate and would exercise specified control over its internal and external affairs, under the umbrella of a centralized governing authority with inter-state and regulatory powers (somewhat akin to the European Union).

  3. A binational Arab and Jewish state. This state would exist within a unified geographic territory (encompassing Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip), and would be the democratic homeland of both Jews and Palestinians, guaranteeing equal rights and responsibilities of citizenship to all. The two national communities would exercise far-reaching control over their respective internal and communal affairs (autonomy), but would govern jointly on matters of security, economy, diplomacy, national infrastructure, and land and resource management.

  4. A multi-ethnic, secular, democratic state. A similarly unified geographic territory, with citizenship derived through residency, parentage, birthright, and/or naturalization, rather than ethnicity or religion per se. Citizenship would be constructed around the individual, as opposed to national and religious group affiliations. Governance would adhere to the principle of one person, one vote. Arabic and Hebrew would be official languages and Palestinian and Jewish cultures would define the national identity.

  5. Two parallel states. Again, a unified geographic territory in which two parallel state structures would coexist within the same borders, one for Jews and one for Palestinians. Citizens of either state could live anywhere they wish, including in the same building; but citizenship, voting, and governance of internal and communal affairs would correspond to national identity—Jews would be citizens of Israel and Palestinians would be citizens of Palestine. These parallel states would cooperate on matters of security, economy, diplomacy, national infrastructure, land and resource management, and in areas where laws and legal structures overlap.

  6. One homeland, two states. In this scenario there would be two separate, geographically defined independent states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, with the combined territory of both states being recognized as the homeland of both Palestinians and Jews. In other words, Jaffa is in Israel but is also recognized as part of the Palestinian homeland, and Hebron is in Palestine but is also recognized as part of the Jewish homeland. Citizens of Israel could be residents of Palestine and citizens of Palestine could be residents of Israel, so long as they abide by local laws and respect the national sovereignty of the state in which they reside.

  7. A confederation of cantons. A canton is defined as “a subdivision of a country established for political or administrative purposes.” Drawing on Switzerland’s canton confederacy model, the land of Israel/Palestine would be divided into dozens of self-governing cantons or districts that would correspond largely to demographic realities on the ground. A unifying central government would assume many of the roles traditionally ascribed to it in the confederal system. Arab and Jewish communities could conceivably establish separate national cantons, as could secular and religious communities. Arab cantons could be established along Bedouin, Christian, Druze, and Muslim lines. Jewish cantons could be established along Ashkenazi and Mizrahi/Sephardic lines, or along secular, national-religious, and Haredi lines.  

Scenarios three, four, five, and seven all present opportunities for a bicameral legislature, with a Jewish chamber and a Palestinian chamber, or a tricameral legislature that would also include a joint Jewish and Palestinian chamber. The same logic could be applied to government cabinets and ministries. One could also imagine a Co-Presidency/Co-Prime-Ministership or a rotating Presidency/Prime-Ministership. Not to mention the potential for public and private sector joint ventures, and partnerships between cultural and educational institutions as well as civil society groups.   Dreaming is an essential ingredient in these processes.  

No doubt each of the seven scenarios contain elements both promising and problematic. And frankly, I don’t have definitive answers. I wish I did. What I do know is that a scenario that ends Israel’s occupation over Palestinians, that guarantees human and civil rights to all, is preferable to a status quo of oppression, racism, terrorism, and pervasive insecurity. And while the Jewishness of Israel, in all its vivid pluralism, has been celebrated for decades, we must also be mindful of the rich Palestinian mosaic, one that includes Muslims, Christians, and Druze. In the Palestinian state context, efforts to privilege or elevate Islam over other faiths must be resisted. Shariah should not be the basis or inspiration for Palestine’s legal system and judiciary (as is the case in Egypt, with devastating consequences for Egyptian Christians).  

In a world where the concept of the nation-state is hardening in some places and dissipating in others, where religions and cultures continue to co-exist and separate, where nostalgia for past empires and lost territories challenges borders and complicates identities, where multicultural democracies are being frayed by nativism and xenophobia, and where statist autocracies struggle to concoct idyllic “national narratives”—in such a world, surely the great thinkers of Palestine and Israel can help us imagine creative new paradigms for governance and national expression. Notions of sovereignty and shared sovereignty, jurisdiction and joint jurisdiction, independence and co-independence, as well as peoplehood, citizenship, identitarianism, land control, and resource management are all due for serious updates and overhauls. I’m hard-pressed to think of a “better” conflict to yield new models for dynamic cohabitation.