Jerusalem — Though Pope Francis billed his trip to the Holy Land as a purely spiritual pilgrimage, it inevitably turned political within minutes of touching down on a seldom-used helipad in Bethlehem.
As his convoy ferried him from a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to a mass at Manger Square on Sunday, his car pulled next to Israel’s separation wall that cuts through Bethlehem — a surprise stop not part of the itinerary. The pope walked up to the wall bowed his head and touched the wall strewn with pro-Palestinian graffiti; it was the iconic image that Palestinian officials had surely been hoping for.
“It’s a great day for the Palestinian people par excellence,” said Mustafa Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian politician.
The move annoyed Israeli officials, one of whom complained that the stop had distorted the fact that the purpose of the wall was to stop suicide bombers from crossing over from Palestinian towns into Israel to carry out terrorist attacks. Ultimately, the Foreign Ministry came up with a quid pro quo: a visit to a memorial to Israeli victims of terrorism just steps from an already planned wreath-laying ceremony at Theodore Herzl’s grave.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added a retort by defending the wall: “If the Palestinians stop incitement and terror, Israel won’t need to take steps like the separation fence, which has saved the lives of thousands.”
The solution allowed the pope to maintain a semblance of diplomatic balance as he carried out a whirlwind tour of symbolic Jewish sites. (His invitation to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres for a meeting to pray next month at the Vatican was also seen as more symbolic than substantive when it comes to the stalled peace talks.) The tribute to Herzl in particular symbolized the Vatican’s most emphatic endorsement of Israel’s role as a Jewish homeland — a key sticking point of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that Arab governments refuse to recognize.
“This was a good visit, the way we see it,” said former Israeli ambassador to the Vatican Oded Ben Hur. “This is putting another layer in the construction of good relations between Israel and the Vatican.”
However, despite the moment at the terror memorial, an Israeli Government Press Office chief, Nitzan Chen, acknowledged that that the image of the pope alongside the separation barrier had become “the picture of the visit.”
One analyst said that Israeli officials were mistaken in suggesting the stop at the terror victims’ memorial, because it came across as taking a page from the Palestinian playbook of overt politicization of the pope’s visit. Indeed, the pope’s route to Bethlehem was lined with political messages — there were images of refugees as well as one poster that likened a crucified Jesus to a Palestinian shot by an Israeli soldier.
“I understand why Netanyahu felt the need to honor terror victims, but it came across as a quid pro quo, while the pope at the separation wall came across as a profound moment of contemplation. The result was that we lost twice,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, an Israeli-American author.
“We would have served Israel’s image better had we not played the game that the Palestinians were playing of trying to score points, and instead embraced the spirit with which the pope was coming here.”
Israel leveraged the visit as well: Israeli officials sought to play up the Jewish state as the most tolerant in the region in upholding freedom of religion, and as the only country in the region where the population of the Christian community is still growing. At the same time, tourism officials said they believed that the visit of Pope Francis would help spur more Christian pilgrims to visit.
But the visit also highlighted strong anti-Christian sentiment in parts of the Israeli Orthodox community, analysts said. The tension was stirred by the Israeli government’s decision to allow the pope to hold a mass in the room on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion believed to be the site of the Last Supper, triggering rumors about a conspiracy to hand over control of the complex where King David is believed to be buried.
Amid protests and violence, Israeli police deployed extra forces to secure the pope’s visit. Orthodox Jews who turned out by the hundreds at a demonstration days before the visit said they viewed it as an attempt by the Church to claim a new holy site and the legacy of King David. “Christianity is idolatry; when they are walking around with crosses, we won’t be able to pray,” said Ephraim Brus, who frequently reads Psalms on Mount Zion.
Rabbi Uri Regev, a leader of the Reform movement in Israel, told Israel Radio after the visit ended that it was a missed opportunity to promote spiritual understanding. “There was a great chance to advance brotherhood and dialogue by giving a chance for the Christian community to reach one of its holy sites, the room of the Last Supper and to pray there,” he said. “Instead, what we hear is that Christianity is impure.”
Though the visit had to compete for Israeli media attention with the killing of four Jews at a Jewish museum in Brussels and the race to succeed Shimon Peres as president, Israel’s media gave the visit prominent coverage. Israel Radio, which covered the events live, took care to note at every step along the visit the intense amount of international coverage. Dikla Aharon, a religion reporter for Israel Radio, said that world attention focusing on a positive story instead of conflict stokes Israelis’ sense of national pride.
And yet, for all of the media attention, many analysts believe that the Israeli public was only vaguely aware or interested in the visit.
“For most Israelis [the visit] is not on their minds; they live in an environment in which the Catholic Church is not a constant presence, and they don’t feel the significance of a papal visit,” said Shmuel Rosner an Israeli journalist.
Despite that, analysts say that there is significance about Pope Francis for Israelis, if only for the fact that it is establishing a precedent: Francis is the third consecutive pope to visit, making the Holy Land and Israel a must-stop for future popes.
Explained Rosner, “It is clear that in the current environment, that this pope and successors are likely to visit.”