OpinionMiddle East

Papal infallibility? Not when it comes to the Middle East

Why can Pope Francis not recognize the failure of the old peace paradigm and the good will behind the current attempt to construct a new one?

Pope Francis touches the Israeli security barrier on his way to lead a mass in Bethlehem, on May 25, 2014. Credit: Nour Shamaly/POOL/Flash90.
Pope Francis touches the Israeli security barrier on his way to lead a mass in Bethlehem, on May 25, 2014. Credit: Nour Shamaly/POOL/Flash90.
Fiamma Nirenstein
Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies.

The words of the prophet Isaiah that Pope Francis cited on Sunday during his speech in the Italian port city of Bari are especially beautiful to those who read them from Jerusalem, because here one sees them come to life every day: “They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (Isaiah 61:4).

Day by day, Israel’s capital grows more beautiful, more open and more accessible to people from all over the world coming to visit its famous sites, from the Holy Sepulcher to the Noble Sanctuary, from the German Quarter to the Mamilla Mall. And in the cafes and shops of the rebuilt Jerusalem, Arabs and Israelis intermingle freely.

Visit one of the city’s hospitals and you will encounter patients of all nationalities and religious backgrounds, being treated by Arab and Jewish Israeli doctors and nurses all working together to save lives. In the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, lawmakers of all ethnicities and religions anxiously await together the outcome of the country’s March 2 election.

This is the Jerusalem of today, not of some distant tomorrow as the pope intimated in his speech. The old ruins have been rebuilt indeed, and it would behoove Pope Francis, who was so quick to condemn the U.S. recognition of Israel’s capital in 2018, to at least take note of it, alongside all of the negativity contained in his messages. Indeed, instead of encouraging collaboration or peaceful sentiment, his words in Bari did the opposite by encouraging Palestinian rejectionism.

In Bari, Pope Francis analyzed the Middle East conflict through an exploded paradigm: employing the conceptual framework of leftist “intersectional” theory, he cast the Mediterranean peoples as the oppressed, as if they had been freed from colonial rule yesterday. It was bizarre to hear the pope trot out obsolete stereotypes blaming the region’s ills on conspiratorial imperialist forces. His address to bishops of 19 Mediterranean countries could have focused on the many complicated conflicts throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East that have dragged the region into bloodbaths Israel has absolutely nothing to do with. He did the opposite.

It’s true that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far from over, but at the same time it can’t be compared with the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused in Syria by the hateful dictator  Bashar al-Assad, with the help of Iran; with Turkey’s military aggressions; with the war in Yemen or with the Iranian regime’s brutal expansionism and oppression of its own population.

The responsible parties in all of these cases are easy to identify—no need for esotericism and conspiracy theories. Instead, Pope Francis chose to accuse the West, U.S. President Donald Trump and Israel of somehow being the ultimate cause of these wars and of terrorism, and so whitewashed the role of dictators and terrorist militias throughout the Middle East.

Francis concluded his very partisan speech by condemning, albeit with veiled words, President Donald Trump’s “Peace to Prosperity” proposal. This while the commission charged with finalizing a definitive path to an agreement based on the proposal, and which is contact with both sides, has just begun its work. Indeed, what we’re seeing today with this new U.S. peace plan is a sincere attempt to find a new pattern for peace; it’s a map and an idea the goal of which is to bring to an end to the evident disaster of the Oslo Accords, which have led only to Palestinian rejectionism and to terrorism against Israel.

The new plan has the courage to realize that Oslo’s premises were false; we finally see here that the 1967 “border” is just an armistice line set following a war that put into the hands of Israel territory illegally occupied by Jordan following the 1948 war. In fact, the plan restores the abandoned U.N. Resolution 242, as it sees the territories as “disputed” and not “occupied,” and takes into account Israel’s security needs, necessary for any agreement.

The Trump plan also takes into account Israel’s suffering due to Palestinians terrorism since the Oslo Accords were signed more than a quarter-century ago, and considers the great risk any future deal will pose to the Jewish state.

Why can the pope not recognize the failure of the old peace paradigm, and the good will behind this attempt to construct a new one?

Under the U.S. plan, even if Israel can annex some of the settlements it must pay a serious price: The plan provides for a Palestinian a state with its capital in eastern Jerusalem, and for territorial swaps that will require Israel to withdraw from portions of land within sovereign borders.

And while the plan requires the Palestinian to take responsibility and make a serious effort towards peace, it also allocates $50 billion in investment over 10 years for the Palestinian territories and neighbors Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

Most importantly, however, the U.S. plan restores a truth long denied by Palestinian propaganda and its Western adherents: that the Jewish people originated in Israel, and have returned there. The plan shows respect for a historical truth that so many lies have tried to bury, and with it bury the legitimacy of the Jewish state. Why, I wonder, can the pope not at least salvage this fundamental aspect of the plan, aligning as it does with Christian theology?

Pope Francis spoke also about “radicalism and terrorism,” as well as the “sectarianism,” but didn’t give them a subject, thus obscuring responsibility with a fog of his own creation and pretending that “populist leaders planted the seeds of hate, just like in the thirties of the past century.” Did they? In Syria, too?

Terrorism must have a subject, a main actor, and it does: Islamism. This, however, is something the pope has never said and will never say—even if his flock are among the victims.

The many misunderstandings on display in the pope’s speech in Bari all run in the same direction—that of assigning all guilt to the West, to Trump, to Israel. In the pope’s eyes, these are the root of all evil.

Trump’s true aim, in this view, is advancing an warmongering, imperialist plot designed to stymie Palestinian national aspirations. This encourages P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas’s rejectionism, and ensures that victimization and terrorism will continue.

Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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