Israel’s critics will celebrate the news today that the Vatican will recognize Palestinian statehood as a rebuke of the Jewish state’s government and policies. The move is line with the international community’s push for Palestinian statehood. It also is part of the Vatican’s efforts to appease the Arab and Muslim worlds as part of a campaign to improve the plight of embattled and dwindling Christian communities in the Middle East. As such, its impact will be mostly symbolic though it will certainly be considered yet another blow to Israel’s uphill efforts to maintain good relations with European countries that are increasingly hostile to Jerusalem. But the one thing we can be sure it won’t do is to improve the chances for peace. By granting the Palestinians official recognition without first requiring them to make peace with Israel, Pope Francis and the Church have only made it less likely that this will ever happen.
It should not be forgotten that the Catholic Church has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last generation with regard to its attitude toward Jews, Judaism and the state of Israel. The historic efforts of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II created a revolution in Jewish-Catholic relations that consigned the disrespect and tolerance for anti-Semitism to the past. The Second Vatican Conference in 1961 broke with the past in terms of rejecting the myth of Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus and set the Church on the path of reconciliation with Judaism. Pope John Paul II continued that effort and under his tutelage Catholic educational efforts discarded the contempt for Judaism that had formerly characterized the Church’s attitude. He added to that legacy when the Vatican formerly recognized Israel in 1993, putting an end to the Church’s official opposition to Zionism that was rooted in a belief that the Jews were cursed to wander and had forfeited the right to their historic homeland.
Since then relations between the Jewish state and the church have not always been rosy. Disputes that stemmed from the anti-Israel attitudes of Palestinian Christians have continued to pop up. As part of an effort to ingratiate itself with Arab countries, the Church has also adopted policies that were hostile to Israel. It’s effort to wrongly blame the Israelis for the decline in the Palestinian Christian community — a trend that is the result of the growing influence of Islamists — has been particularly egregious. But despite all of that, it would be a mistake to consider the Church or the Vatican a particularly avid foe of Israel. Catholics around the world and especially those in the United States have become some of the Jewish state’s best friends and most staunch allies.
Moreover, it is likely that Pope Francis considers his gesture toward the Palestinians to be one intended to encourage peace. The pontiff seems to consider it an effort to be even-handed between the two parties to the conflict and is probably entirely sincere in his hopes that this move will jumpstart the moribund peace process.
But, for all of his good will, the pope is mistaken to think that giving the Palestinians such recognition will advance the peace process. To the contrary, by granting them official status in this way only encourages Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to continue to stonewall efforts to make peace.
After all, if Abbas’s real goal been an independent Palestinian state, he could have had one in 2000, 2001 when his former boss Yasir Arafat rejected an Israeli offer of statehood including almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem. Abbas rejected an even better offer in 2008 and then refused to negotiate seriously in 2013 and 2014 even after the Israelis had accepted an American framework whose goal was a two state solution.
The Palestinian campaign to get recognition from the United Nations and other countries is motivated by a desire to avoid peace talks, not to make them more successful. The Palestinians want a state but not one that is prepared to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state alongside it, not matter where its borders are drawn. By telling the Palestinians, the Church recognizes his faux state; it is making it easier for Abbas to refuse to negotiate. To the extent that this recognition grants the Palestinians rights to all of the disputed 1967 territories, the Vatican and other European states that have done the same thing, is prejudging negotiations that should be conducted by the parties, not outsiders.
Just as important, the Church ignores the fact that an independent Palestinian state in all but name already exists in Gaza under the tyrannical rule of Hamas terrorists. Which “Palestine” is the Church recognizing? Hamasistan or Fatah’s corrupt kleptocracy that Abbas presides over? With Hamas growing more popular, the prospect of it gaining power in an independent West Bank makes an Israeli withdrawal a fantasy rather than a viable policy option.
While no one should question the pope’s good intentions, the Vatican move will only serve to make peace less likely and do nothing for Middle East Christians who are under unbearable pressure from Islamists, not Israel. In this case, being even-handed undermines the already dwindling hopes for a two state solution.