Palestinians should ensure the world long remembers images of Pope Francis’s recent visit
Cynics have dismissed Pope Francis’s visit to the Holy Land as a largely meaningless gesture by a religious figure that will change nothing on the ground and therefore has little, if any, significance. Idealists, on the other hand, have celebrated some of the implicit messaging as a turning point for peace, especially from a Palestinian point of view.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Pope’s trip doesn’t actually transform the basic situation on the ground. But Pope Francis has, in a message aimed directly at the Israeli government and public, rather dramatically underscored the international expectation that there must and will be a Palestinian state.
His trip was characterized by competing images and recognitions of the iconography of the national narratives of both sides. But, because there isn’t a balance between the parties, there also wasn’t a balance in the significance of the images that will linger from his trip.
The Pope dutifully laid a wreath at the tomb of the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, and visited Israel’s Holocaust Memorial and a memorial for victims of terrorism. These are fairly standard diplomatic gestures, though of course they take on new significance when done by the head of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet none of them should cause Palestinians any particular discomfort.
The same cannot be said for Francis’s gestures toward Palestinians. He called explicitly for recognition of what he described as “the State of Palestine.” He singled out the issue of Palestinian prisoners, which is not only dear to the heart of virtually every Palestinian family, but was also a major factor in the breakdown of recent Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
And, most dramatically, the Pope made an unscheduled prayer stop at Israel’s separation barrier, the hideous, gigantic wall that snakes through the occupied West Bank. The most lingering image of his trip will undoubtedly be Pope Francis quietly pressing his head against one of the ugliest monuments to conflict in the world and silently praying. He did not say what he was praying for or about, but the imagery was powerful and unmistakable.
This was not lost on Israelis. There was an outcry from many on the Israeli right, and the Israeli government said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had tried to explain to the Pope that Israel believes the wall has been a great deterrent to Palestinian terrorism. That argument is belied by numerous revelations that the route of the wall has been “political” as well as strategic, and it begs the question of why Israel, if it wants a wall, doesn’t build it on its own territory but instead in areas under its occupation.
Many Israelis and their allies were reduced to blustering about aspects of the graffiti near that part of the wall where Pope Francis stopped, so dramatically, to pray. This, of course, is another effort to change the subject, which will be essential for Israel and its friends every time international attention focuses on the wall. But no one is going to remember the graffiti that the Pope almost certainly neither knew nor cared about. Everyone is going to remember the image of him stopping and praying at a structure that the Israeli government hopes all outsiders will simply pretend either doesn’t exist or somehow isn’t a gigantic monument to the cruelty of occupation.
There was a final message on the Pope’s parting. Francis invited Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to come to Rome to pray with him for peace in coming weeks. He did not invite Mr. Netanyahu. This was not a “snub,” the Vatican was quick to claim, it’s just that the Pope has a particular regard for Mr. Peres, and so he invited him.
Maybe. But, again, the optics send a fairly clear message, and not one that endorses the current policies of the present Israeli government. Indeed, the implicit critique is unmistakable.
Nobody expects that prayer meeting to produce any diplomatic progress, let alone a breakthrough, particularly without Mr. Netanyahu’s presence. And the criticism that Pope Francis’s Middle East trip won’t change any realities on the ground is true, despite its numerous striking gestures in favor of Palestinian claims and aspirations.
But the “all or nothing” attitude that many Palestinians and their supporters take toward international diplomacy and politics has been, and remains, debilitating. Francis’ gestures were highly significant and meaningful. They should be pocketed, and referred to time and again.
Too often Palestinians and their allies squander diplomatic gains by dismissing important rhetorical or symbolic gestures in their direction as insufficient because they do not immediately or independently resolve any of the determinative realities on the ground. “Empty words” is a typical response. At the same time, they are quick to assign enormous significance to, and raise a hue and cry about, words that undermine their basic interests, according them even more importance than they often deserve.
Words matter, and words of support are crucial to the success of any international and diplomatic project. Palestinians just got an enormous boost from Pope Francis, who underlined – particularly for the Israelis – the strong international expectation that there will indeed be a state of Palestine in the foreseeable future. Palestinians would be well advised to embrace that message and not to allow the Pope’s visit, and its striking iconography of peace and an end to occupation, to be forgotten soon.