There is no denying the significance of Pope Francis’s expressions of horror and anguish over the Holocaust during his visit to the Middle East this week. As the spiritual leader of more than 1 billion Roman Catholics, his emotional words are bound to have a real impact on the way many people around the world view the Nazis’ war of extermination against the Jews.
Yet candor requires that we also note the aspects of the pope’s trip that were harmful to the interests of Israel – namely, the calculated bows to both Israeli and Palestinian symbols and sensitivities. Because for all the praise the pope garnered for that show of evenhandedness, the fact is that ignoring Palestinian recalcitrance only serves to encourage more of it.
It has long been clear to us that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is not prepared to negotiate with Israel if it means he’d have to make meaningful concessions. Rather, his notion of negotiations seems to entail a time frame for Israel’s meeting his unalterable demands.
Indeed, when Israel balks, he simply threatens to – and in some cases actually does – renew efforts to gain recognition of his demands from the United Nations, without of course having to give anything in return. And these machinations gain momentum when he perceives that the United States or the international community is more firmly in his corner on a particular issue.
Seen from this perspective, we believe Pope Francis complicated mightily the prospects for peace in the Middle East with his visit to the region. To be sure, there were pluses –in addition to his aforementioned reaction at Yad Vashem, he became the first pope to visit the tomb of Theodor Herzl, widely recognized as the father of the Zionist movement. Nonetheless, the overall effect of the trip was a boost to Mr. Abbas in his determination that the Palestinians not have to deal directly with Israel in any serious manner.
When the pope touched down in the Middle East, it was not in Jordan or within the Green Line, as other popes have done. Rather, he went directly to an area in the West Bank administered by the Palestinian Authority. And while many have spoken of the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state, the pope spoke in the present tense of “the State of Palestine.”
Words like that, providing a papal imprimatur to the idea of an already existing Palestinian state, surely took Mr. Abbas’s breath away.
And then came the stop at Israel’s security wall where the pontiff prayed at a section that had been spray-painted with graffiti reading “Free Palestine” and comparing Bethlehem to the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw during the reign of the Nazis. He labeled the fence as “monstrous” and touched his forehead at a place where someone had sprayed the words: “Pope we need some 1 to speak about justice.”
That scene at the security wall went viral and no doubt confirmed Mr. Abbas’s view that easy symbolism beats hard negotiations anytime.
The rest of the pope’s brief stay in Bethlehem was even more of a coup for those pushing the Palestinian narrative, as was evident in the coverage of media outlets far and wide. Here, for example, was The New York Times:
In Bethlehem, where Francis spent six hours, he met Mr. Abbas as a peer, giving the Palestinians the kind of high-profile boost they had been seeking, and spotlighting the Vatican’s support for the 2012 United Nations resolution that upgraded their status to observer state.
He led a spirited Mass in a crowded Manger Square, which was bedecked with photomontages blending Christian iconography with images of Palestinians’ difficult daily reality. There he had lunch with families suffering particular hardships under Israeli occupation, and was serenaded by scores of children from the nearby Dheisheh refugee camp, home to some 12,000 people exiled from former family homes since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.