Pope Benedict XVI upset the schedule on his first day in Israel by leaving an interfaith meeting in Jerusalem early on Monday night after a leading Muslim cleric called on him to condemn the “slaughter” of women and children in the recent assault on Gaza.
The pontiff walked out, a spokesman noted, because Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi’s speech was a “direct negation” of dialogue and damaged the Pope’s efforts at “promoting peace.”
Before he arrived in the region, the Pope declared that he was coming as a “pilgrim of peace,” with his staff accentuating that his role would be spiritual rather than political.
In truth, however, Pope Benedict’s visit was mired in politics the moment he agreed, at the invitation of Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, to step into this conflict-torn region.
The two popes who preceded him to the Holy Land appear to have better appreciated that point.
The first, Paul VI, made a hurried 12-hour stop in 1964, before the Vatican and Israel had established diplomatic relations, to conduct a Mass in Nazareth. During that time he did not utter the word “Israel” or formally meet with an Israeli official.
The second, John Paul II, came to the Holy Land in radically different circumstances: for the millennium, when hopes were still bright for the peace process. The Vatican had recognized Israel a few years earlier and the pontiff worked hard to soothe long-standing Jewish grievances against the Catholic church.
But he is also remembered by Palestinians for his bold move in joining Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, on a visit to the Dheisheh refugee camp near Bethlehem, where he cited UN resolutions against Israel and graphically described the “degrading conditions” under which Palestinians lived.
A decade on, the degrading conditions of occupation have worsened considerably and hopes of peace have vanished. In the circumstances, some Palestinians question what point a papal visit has served.
“The very act of coming here is a political act that works to the benefit of Israel,” observed Mazin Qumsiyeh, a prominent peace activist who teaches at the West Bank’s only Catholic university, in Bethlehem.
“This Pope’s visit, unlike his predecessor’s, offers no novelty — apart from his decision to stand next to [the Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu and legitimize an extreme right-wing government.”
Israeli officials too are unpersuaded by the Pope’s claim that he can avoid being dragged into local politics. Or as one government adviser told the Haaretz newspaper: “We have become pariahs in so many places around the globe. Promoting the Pope’s visit to the state is part of changing that.”
Israel has established the largest press centre in the country’s history for this visit, while police have broken up attempts by Palestinian organizations in Jerusalem to present a rival picture to journalists.
The attempts at careful stage management began from the moment the Pope’s plane touched down in Tel Aviv on Monday. At the reception, Pope Benedict stood between Netanyahu and Peres to listen not only to the Israeli national anthem but also to Jerusalem of Gold, a song popularized by soldiers during the capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 war.
The lyrics — offensive to Palestinians — describe an empty and neglected city before the arrival of Jews.
Similarly, Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, made a point of welcoming him to the “capital of Israel and the Jewish people,” a description of Jerusalem not recognized in international law.
After the Pope failed to object, the Israeli media happily concluded that the country’s occupation of Jerusalem had papal blessing.
In addition, Palestinians, including the 100,000 with ties to Rome, have been angered by the Pope’s official meeting with the parents of a captured Israeli soldier, a humanitarian gesture made political for them by the fact that he has not extended the same courtesy to the parents of any of the thousands of Palestinians in Israeli captivity.
Many Palestinians appreciate that the Pope — with his unfortunate, if apparently involuntary, connections to Nazi Germany — has been especially careful not to offend Israeli sensitivities, even if his speech at Yad Vashem failed to live up to the country’s high expectations.
But some also conclude that he has done too little to let the world know of their own plight.
Under pressure from Israel he has refused to visit Gaza, even at the beseeching of the tiny and besieged community of Catholics there.
Yesterday, to minimize Israel’s embarrassment, Vatican officials tried as best they could to keep him out of view of the oppressive wall that encircles Bethlehem. But he did speak to the press outside a UN school at a refugee camp within meters of the wall.
And today, as he headed to Nazareth to celebrate mass, he will not meet Mazin Ghanaim, mayor of the Galilee town of Sakhnin, after Israel labelled Ghanaim a “supporter of terror” for criticizing its offensive in Gaza.
In private at least, some Palestinian Christian leaders admit that there are pressures on the Pope other than his own personal history that may make him wary of antagonizing Israel.
Most importantly, the Vatican desperately needs exemption from Israeli taxes levied on the Church’s extensive land holdings. Unpaid property taxes are reported to amount to $70 million.
The Holy See also wants a reprieve from Israeli policies that deny visas to many church officials and block clerics’ movement in the occupied territories.
As the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, recently complained: “At the roadblocks, even priestly garb doesn’t help.”
And finally, the Vatican has been seeking Israel’s agreement for more than a decade to return to its control major sites of pilgrimage, including Mount Tabor and the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.
But Israel has not been able to control the message completely. On his one-day trip to Bethlehem and the Aida refugee camp yesterday, the Pope did acknowledge Palestinian suffering and the destruction of Gaza, even if he blamed it vaguely on “the turmoil that has afflicted this land for decades.”
He lamented the difficulties Palestinians face in reaching their holy places in Jerusalem, though he appeared to justify the restrictions on Israel’s “serious security concerns.”
And he criticized the building of a wall around Bethlehem, while attributing its construction to the “stalemate” in relations between Israelis and Palestinians.
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.