Pontifical diplomacy’s achievements and limits

Pope Benedict XVI has completed his trip to the Middle East. A trip particularly expected after the tensions with the Muslim and the Jewish communities that marked the early years of his pontificate, after the Israeli operation in Gaza a few months ago and the appointment of a new Israeli government unwilling to compromise.

It is a Pope out of his usual secrecy and conveying clear messages the media have largely welcomed. Benedict XVI unambiguously dealt with two thorny issues: the relationship to Islam and the rejection of Holocaust denial. His speeches in Amman and in Yad Vashem Memorial have both been well received. However, the Pope went further.

First, by attacking all forms of fundamentalism, the Holy Father has shaken his image as a traditionalist Pope. Then, by his rejection of an unavoidable « clash of civilizations » between Muslims and Christians, he expressed his opposition to any confrontation scheme.

Finally, the Pope has shown an unequivocal political discourse and that was surprising. Since his arrival in Jordan, he called for the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian State and subsequently repeated his belief, saying to Mr. Abbas that he supports « the right of his people to live in the land of their ancestors (…) ». About the separation wall, the Pope could not have been clearer, stating that « walls can be knocked down. » Concerning the embargo suffocating Gaza, the Pope expressed his « solidarity » with the population, « praying for its lifting. »

Archbishop Fouad Twal, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, had said last April about this Papal trip: « Let’s face it: there is a political dimension to 100%. Every day, every gesture, every meeting and every visit, everything will have a political connotation.” The Archbishop had also publicly asked in his last Christmas message in Bethlehem, “who would end the occupation and injustice”, a frank talk from the Church which contrasts with the apathy of Western political leaders.

Reaffirmation of the Holy See as an international player or attempt to put pressure on a new Israeli government whose intransigence scares more and more leaders?

Indeed, this Papal visit comes in a particular context. It is also this week that Israeli Prime Minister B. Netanyahu met with his Egyptian counterpart in Sharm el-Sheikh and with the King of Jordan in Aqaba before going on May 18th to Washington. However, the Prime Minister seems to want to divert the topic of these meetings on the Iranian threat. It is a support against Iran that B. Netanyahu was looking for in Egypt, arguing that peace in the Middle East could only be based on the Israeli-Egyptian cooperation. In Jordan, the Prime Minister responded to the call of King Abdullah to accept the peace plan of the Arab League, explaining that the Iranian issue was a priority and a prerequisite for peace in the region. To the Holy Father finally, B. Netanyahu asked to firmly condemn the Iranian behavior towards Israel, ignoring Pope Benedict XVI’s repeated assertion on the need for a Palestinian State.

Can we then speak of a failure of the position of the Pope addressing an Israeli Prime Minister who remained deaf to the Pontiff’s argument? It would be more accurate to put into perspective the impact of the Holy Father’s action, which is above all symbolic, coming from a spiritual power. Let’s hope now that the temporal power that B. Obama represents will be more effective on the Israeli government. Nevertheless, the pontiff’s message delivered to the other two religions of the Book, to Middle-Eastern Christians as well as his claims for peace can only be welcomed.

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