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.”
Pope Francis will highlight the progress in Catholic-Jewish relations by traveling with Argentinian rabbi Abraham Skorka, and will build ties with Muslims by having an Islamic scholar accompany him. But the main focus will be on internal Christian relations.
The Jerusalem visit was organized in honor of the 50th anniversary of the meeting in Jerusalem between Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, a turning point in relations between the Vatican and the Orthodox churches, which the patriarch leads. The pope’s emphasis is on his three meetings with the current patriarch, Bartholomew. His trip will be less public and involve fewer opportunities for rank-and-file Catholics to see their leader than the two recent papal visits.
“In 2000, when John Paul came, it was a pilgrimage during which he met local people, whereas in 2009 it was labeled a pastoral visit with an effort [by Pope Benedict] to meet the local people,” said Father Athanasius, a high-ranking Jerusalem-based Franciscan cleric. “The main thing this time will be his meetings [with the Orthodox Christians].”
But with the Catholic establishment in Jerusalem already vocal on the recent spate of “price tag” attacks — acts of vandalism carried out by far-right Jews on churches and other Christian sites in Israel — it is believed that Pope Francis will probably weigh in on the phenomenon. The Vatican’s Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem condemned the attacks on May 11, saying they “poison the atmosphere” ahead of the pope’s visit, and questioned Israel’s commitment to bringing the perpetrators to justice.
Hebrew-language death threats scrawled on Christian sites are not the only thing raising hackles on the ground. Also adding to the tension is the fact that Jerusalem municipal officials have asked a Franciscan center in the Old City to take down banners welcoming the pope during his trip — even though, as the Latin Patriarchate pointed out, it is common practice around the world to put up such banners ahead of a papal visit.
Some expert observers further say that Pope Francis won’t be able to resist some kind of postmortem for the peace process. Yvonne Friedman, an expert in Jewish-Christian relations at Bar Ilan University, is “almost sure” that the pope will directly or indirectly pin the blame on Israel for the collapse of negotiations. But Neuhaus played down the speculation. “I don’t think the pope is coming to teach anyone a lesson,” he said. “He’s not going to blame anyone.”
Meanwhile, some Israeli rightists are more concerned with negotiations over territory than with blame or banners. On May 12, around 200 Orthodox Jews demonstrated on Mount Zion in Jerusalem against a deal — rumored to be sealed during the papal visit — that would give Catholics increased rights on the mount or even place it under the Vatican’s sovereignty.
Christians believe that Mount Zion was the site of the Last Supper, and on May 26 the pope will hold a mass in the room where this event supposedly took place. The Vatican claims that it should be able to hold more ceremonies there than it is currently permitted. The Cenacle room lies above what Jews believe to be the tomb of King David, and many Israeli Jews, especially on the right, are opposed to any increased Catholic control there.
Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has denied that a deal with the Vatican over Mount Zion is in the works. But the fact that Israel’s President Shimon Peres reportedly said a year ago that a compromise had nearly been reached, and that this is the most high-profile Vatican-Israel meeting since, is keeping the rumor alive.
Friedman thinks that the Mount Zion issue is “bound to be part of the trip” and that the visit may present an opportunity for an already agreed-upon deal to finally be made public. “Whatever has been decided, they have kept secret,” she said.
Contact Nathan Jeffay at firstname.lastname@example.org