Jerusalem — Three popes have visited Israel. But Pope Francis will be the first to visit the “State of Palestine.”
The official itinerary for his Holy Land trip during the last week in May has him visiting an entity that, as far as both Israel and the United States are concerned, doesn’t exist.
In fact, the very first thing he will do when he enters the Israeli-occupied West Bank is to pay a “courtesy visit to the president of the State of Palestine.” This refers to Mahmoud Abbas, who in Jerusalem and Washington is considered not a head of state, but instead president of the Palestinian Authority, an interim body created by the Oslo Accords.
David Neuhaus, Vatican-appointed media coordinator for the visit, told the Forward that the wording “refers to the 2012 declaration of the United Nations that Palestine is a non-member state.” In short, the Vatican is reiterating, on the ground, its recognition of Palestinian unilateral moves at the U.N.
The question hanging over the trip is whether this wording, currently tucked away in an itinerary, will be used prominently by the pope during his public appearances. If it is, it will be the most high-profile embrace yet for the Palestinian claim that it has the right to statehood, even if this political independence isn’t achieved through negotiations with Israel.
Palestinian officials are thrilled by the thought that the pope may declare — during his May 25 meeting with Abbas, a mass in Bethlehem, or his visit to the city’s Grotto of the Nativity later that day — that he is honored to be in the State of Palestine.
Politicians are not commenting publicly on this scenario, but Ghassan Khatib, a professor of politics at Birzeit University and former advisor to Abbas, told the Forward: “I think this would be extremely significant because it would be an unprecedented statement from such a level and it would be a message to Christians around the world.”
“The Palestinian Authority is trying to build up international recognition of a state and many of us believe this is a gradual matter,” Khatib added. “Such recognition is significant because of the great influence of the pope internationally.”
Israel knows from experience just how significant a visiting pope’s word choices can be. When former pope Paul VI became the first pope to visit Israel in 1964, he assiduously avoided using the term “Israel.” The simple recognition of Israelis’ statehood during the subsequent two papal visits has meant a lot to the country.
But Israeli officials are determined that whatever Pope Francis says in the West Bank will not have a bearing on his time later that day and the following day in Israel. “There’s nothing much we can do,” said the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Oded Ben Hur, diplomatic advisor to the Knesset and former ambassador to the Holy See. “It’s their relationship.”
Whatever recognition Palestinians receive for their unilateral statehood moves, Israel is poised to receive unprecedented recognition for the movement that envisioned it as a modern Jewish state. Pope Francis will lay a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl, founder of political Zionism. “He is coming here for a short visit and if he chooses to pay homage to Herzl that’s a strong statement,” said Ben Hur.
The statement will be particularly striking given that it is exactly 110 years since Herzl went to see the pope of his day, appealing for help in establishing a Jewish state, only to be told, according to his record, that “the Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people.” Ben Hur said that in view of Herzl’s 1904 experience, the papal visit to his grave will constitute “closing a circle.”