Pope highlights Israeli injustice

The Pope's invitation to Palestinian and Israeli leaders brings a powerful new voice into the conflict

When the Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas and the Israeli president Shimon Peres meet at the Vatican, what will they talk about? Pope Francis, on his visit to the Holy Land, extended an invitation for the two to have a “heartfelt prayer” in the city state. Both agreed. Doubtless, when they meet, there will be much talk of mutual understanding, shared histories and common grounds.

But there almost certainly won’t be discussion of the type that the Palestinians need: when will the siege of Gaza end? When will the occupation of the West Bank be brought to a close? Will the hundreds of thousands of illegal settlers ever leave? Will any Israeli leader ever sign the Arab peace plan?

These are political questions and are outside the power of the pope to discuss, let alone enforce. Indeed, with such intransigence from Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, such a powerful settler movement and a fiercely pro-Israel lobby in the United States, it is hard to imagine anyone finding a way through. Change is likely to come, as it did in apartheid South Africa, through international economic pressure. The BDS movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel’s occupation is having a real impact: last week, the European Union, Israel’s biggest market, banned the import of poultry and eggs from illegal Israeli settlements.

Yet there is still a role for the pope and for other religious leaders. The first is the power to speak up. Merely by involving himself in the conflict, Pope Francis has broken the mould and taken a stance. It may not seem like it, but the relatively small gesture of visiting the towering separation wall outside Bethlehem was enormously symbolic. The sight of one of the most prominent Christian leaders unable to reach the town where Jesus Christ was born highlights the cruelty of an occupation that affects Christians as well as Muslims.

Secondly, it is within the power of the pope to highlight the injustice of the occupation without parroting the narrative of “equal blame”. This is not, as so often implied, a conflict between two equal sides. It is a conflict between an oppressor and the oppressed. Pope Francis’ intervention has highlighted that and shown the importance of seeking genuine justice, not merely a political solution.

Published: May 26, 2014 04:00 AM