Pope Francis may have intended his visit to the Middle East to promote the causes of ecumenism and peace. But he has learned that it is not possible to step into the political maelstrom of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians without getting sucked into it. The picture of him praying at the security barrier in Bethlehem at a point where it was defaced by Palestinian graffiti that spoke of it as an “apartheid wall” will—as the Guardian gleefully characterized it—probably be the best remembered moment of the trip and the photo of him praying in front of it may become an iconic image of grievances against Israel. This unscheduled stop is believed to have been the work of his Palestinian hosts rather than a deliberate Vatican insult directed at Israel. But though he attempted to make up for it the next day with a stop at a memorial to the Israeli victims of Arab terror—a reminder that the barrier was built to prevent more such deaths at the hands of Palestinian suicide bombers—the damage was already done especially since the pontiff’s silent prayers at the first unscheduled stop were not balanced by any statement that made it clear that he understood why the fence had to be built.
Though he is trying to be even-handed and must be credited with the best of intentions, given the highly symbolic nature of every one of his gestures, it is difficult to regard the controversies into which he has allowed himself to be drawn without thinking that he might have done everyone a favor and just stayed home.
Even before he arrived in the region, some on both sides of the divide criticized the pope for his itinerary. Jews voiced concern about the Vatican’s efforts to emphasize their formal recognition of a “State of Palestine” without first requiring it to make peace with Israel. Palestinians were angry about the pope’s stop on Mount Herzl, Israel’s Arlington, where Francis laid a wreath on the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, a sign that they still refuse to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state he envisaged.
But by stepping into the controversy over the security barrier, the pope left the realms of both religion and state protocol to lend his enormous international credibility and popularity to the Palestinian narrative about the fence. That he was led to a particular spot on it that was filled with English as well as Arabic graffiti was the perfect photo op for those who attempt to argue that its placement is a symbol of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. Israel’s foes have attempted to claim that the fence is a new version of a Nazi ghetto wall in which Palestinian victims are hemmed in and deprived of their rights. The truth is that it was built reluctantly by an Israeli government that did not wish to divide the land in this manner but had to do something to make it harder for Palestinian suicide bombers and other terrorists to cross into Israel to slaughter innocents. Rather than a tangible manifestation of Israeli colonialism, it is a monument to the bloodthirsty decision of Palestinian leaders to wage a terrorist war against the Jewish state when they could have instead had independence and peace.
While some are wrongly assuming that every action of the pope is evidence that old enmities between Jews and Catholics are being resurrected, the pope’s good intentions are not really in doubt. Francis appears to be a strong supporter of the work of his predecessors John XXIII and John Paul II in putting an end to Catholic support for anti-Semitism and inaugurating a new era of respect between the two faiths and in recognizing the legitimacy of Israel.
But even if we concede his desire to do good, the Vatican needed to understand that injecting the pope into the details of the Middle East conflict is far more likely to heighten tensions than to relax them. Nor is the meeting in Rome to which the pope has invited Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres a particularly helpful gesture. By inviting Peres, who holds a largely symbolic office rather than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is Abbas’s actual counterpart in terms of power, the pontiff can be accused of seeking to bypass the Israeli government and undermining Israel’s actual leader, who is not liked in Europe because of his tough-minded willingness to stand up for his country.
The point here is that neither the pope nor any other foreign leader can solve the puzzle of Middle East peace. If the conflict is to be resolved it must be by done by the Israelis and the Palestinians. Unfortunately, the Palestinians are still stuck in their “Nakba” narrative in which they have come to link their identity as a people with their struggle to deny Jewish rights over any part of the land and in which they have come to glorify violence against Israel and its people. The Vatican is also in no position to play Middle East politics when it seems quick to engage in disputes with Israel while at the same time demonstrating its reluctance to criticize the Arab and Muslim world for its mistreatment of Christian minorities.
The pope should be welcomed wherever he goes and even those who are rightly upset about some aspects of his trip should avoid any hint of enmity toward this good man. But this whirlwind visit shows that even the most well-intentioned visitors can blunder if they believe they can transcend the conflict even while plunging into it.