Pope Francis and the Middle East Peace Process
The trip by Pope Francis to the Holy Land, billed in advance as solely religious, made some eye-catching intrusions into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Comments minimizing the significance of this aspect of the trip were quick to follow. Palestinian figure Hanan Ashrawi seemed to go out of her way to pooh-pooh the coming prayer meeting at the Vatican in which Israeli president Shimon Peres and Palestinian authority president Mahmoud Abbas will join Francis; Ashrawi accused the pope—probably inaccurately—of not realizing that Peres in his mostly ceremonial position wields little power. Skepticism about how much any leader of the Roman Catholic church can accomplish follows in the tradition of Stalin questioning how many divisions the pope has. The pope still doesn't have any divisions, and neither does Peres and of course neither does Abbas.
Francis's foray into Israeli-Palestinian matters nonetheless was encouraging, for several reasons. One is that for a credible and prominent world figure to do this reduces the chance that the Israeli government can, as Jacob Heilbrunn puts it, “derogate the Palestinian issue to the back burner of international relations.” The United States will not be venturing very far into this issue anytime soon, after Secretary Kerry's admirably energetic but ultimately futile efforts on the subject. More fundamentally, the United States still wears the self-imposed political shackles that prevent it from functioning effectively on this issue as anything other than Israel's lawyer. The U.S. role still will be critical if the Palestinian issue is ever to be resolved, but perhaps it will take more initiative by someone outside the United States to counteract the power and damaging effect of the shackles.
Another reason is that Francis has demonstrated a flair, and certainly has done so on this trip, for focusing attention sharply on an issue while still performing the balancing acts required of any statesman. The most potent image by far from the visit was the pope's stop at a section of the Israeli-constructed separation wall, with Francis bringing his head to the wall and praying. Here was the counterpart, in wall-for-a-wall balance, to the more familiar image of the distinguished visitor at Jerusalem's Western Wall. One wall is an ancient artifact that is one of the leading symbols of Israel's claim to all of Jerusalem; the other is an ugly modern contrivance that not only symbolizes Israel's unilateral slicing up of the West Bank but has practical consequences, negative and severe, on the Arab population that lives there. A couple of millennia from now, who will be praying at the latter wall, and in remembrance of what? Whether it was Francis himself or someone else in his entourage who thought up this photo op, it was brilliant.
That the pope is a man of religion may constitute another advantage, in trying to make religion less of a source of division related to this conflict than it is now. Israel's clinging to land rather than peace has several motives, including economic ones, but a religiously based notion of divine right to the land is important for a major part of the current government's right-wing constituency. Perhaps the most prominent leader of Christianity—another of the great monotheistic religions that arose in the Middle East and for which, like Judaism, the Holy Land is the number one place of importance to the faithful—is especially well equipped to teach that no one religious claim can be the basis for determining the outcome of a dispute between two people over the same land. He is probably even better equipped to do that than someone of the Islamic faith, for whom the Noble Sanctuary of Jerusalem also is important but is more of a number three behind Mecca and Medina.
The most important reason, however, to be encouraged by Francis's involvement stems from his larger set of priorities—and assiduously cultivated image—as the pope of the poor. Championing the cause of the downtrodden is clearly where Francis intends to make his mark. As such, his involvement in Israeli-Palestinian matters implicitly, even without the pontiff explicitly articulating this point, helps to frame the issue correctly as what it has been for a long time: a highly asymmetrical encounter in which security and power and control are almost all on one side, and the downtrodden are on the other side. This is not some kind of fair fight in which each side has significant material assets to bring to bear. The Israelis, as the occupiers, can end the occupation whenever they want. The Palestinians, as the occupied, have almost nothing going for them other than sympathy for the downtrodden and appeals to a sense of justice—which is why the Israeli government frantically resists any move that might give the Palestinians a wider forum for such appeals.