Pope-ing into the Holy Land

The head of the Catholic Church was never going to stick to a non-political script in his weekend visit to Palestine and Israel, but as has become the hallmark of this pope, its his actions that have again spoken louder than any words...especially in Palestine.

So the Pope, an Imam and a Rabbi get onto a plane...sounds like the beginning of a fairly standard joke.

While Pope Francis did travel to Jordan, Palestine and Israel with such religious counterparts, any trip to this politically charged area of the world provides little in the way of laughing matter.

It would be fair to say however that any potential punchline would fall short of the impact of the iconic photo of the Pope praying at the Apartheid Wall in Bethlehem. 

Like all Palestinians and visitors to Palestine, Pope Francis stood at the wall under the gaze of the omnipresent Israeli Occupation Forces, safe in their razor-wire encased watchtowers that regularly dot the at times meters high wall.

The Pope chose a spot where the graffiti called on him to stand up for the Palestinians by speaking about justice. The regular plea to ‘free Palestine’ was in clear view, as was a description of the wall making Bethlehem look like the Warsaw ghetto.

The latter reference - obviously not seen by those on the other side of the Apartheid Wall - sparked immediate outrage in the twittersphere and comments sections accompanying the reporting of the Pope’s prayer gesture. 

It struck a chord. Good. Hopefully it provides food for thought, particularly when a number of pundits from the ‘other side‘ pre-diagnosed the papal visit as diplomatic tip-toeing around the region’s woes.

The impact of that photo is its reinforcement of Francis as the ‘people’s pope‘, very well aware of what’s going on in the so-called Holy Land. In a simple, spontaneous act of walking to the wall he brought the world a little closer to the reality of life under occupation.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was quick to explain to the Pope that the ‘security barrier’ is there to save Israeli lives and wouldn’t be necessary if Palestinians stopped their terrorist acts.

What he keeps forgetting to include in this well hased narrative is that the Apartheid Wall would not be necessary if Israel stopped its illegal occupation which imprisons, kills and terrorizes Palestinians.

Imagine the collective headache that rippled through the Israeli political hierarchy when Pope Francis took his little prayer detour.

By the time Netanyahu had a chance to explain the wall, the photo had gone viral.

Perhaps that is why the Israeli PM bizarrely took it upon himself to school the Pope on the plight of Christians in the region, noting their diminishing numbers in Arab countries. 

Then in the classic Netanyahu ‘it’s us against the bad guys’ he is widely reported as telling the Pope that the Palestinians were responsible for a wave of anti-Israeli incitement and anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe - a trend recently reported in a survey by the American Anti Defamation League.

What was missing from this simplistic analysis was the rise in the number of right wing parties throughout Europe (as the weekend’s European parliamentary vote attests to), and, the high probability that the increased exposure of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians under occupation has led to international condemnation which is all too conveniently interpreted as anti-Semitism when it is nothing of the sort.

While the Pope left no room for doubt that he recognises the State of Palestine and the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign homeland, he is equally forceful in recognising the State of Israel, praying at the Jewish holy site of the Western Wall, and laying a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzel - the founder of Zionism.

Palestinian President Abbas didn’t get his knickers in a twist over the Herzel wreath, despite the impact the practice of Zionist ideology has had on Palestinians. He acknowledged it as a courtesy by the Pontiff and left it at that.

A visit by this pope to that region was never going to be a simple vigil for peace.

Each side in the protracted dispute will have been analyzing his every move for a political slip or a teensy bit of favouritism.

Pope Francis appears to have navigated the territory pretty well, although he clearly ventured into politics.

The acceptance of both Abbas and Israeli President Peres to the Vatican next month to pray together for peace is more than just a symbolic gesture, if only because anything this pope does gets so much attention, and the so-called peace process needs as much sunlight as possible.

In the meantime, Netanyahu showed just how serious he is about that peace process.

While the Pontiff was still on the ground Netanyahu's administration approved fifty new settler homes in occupied East Jerusalem.

According to Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now, that brings to about 14,000 the number of new settler homes since the latest round of ill-fated peace talks resumed nine months ago.

For some reason Netanyahu did not ask the Pope to join with him in announcing such a helpful development in the quest for peace.