Palestinians Won PR Battle Over Pope’s Visit. Will It Matter?

Gershom Gorenberg

My apology to readers; I’ve been mostly absent from this blog while teaching for a semester at Columbia University. But I’m back, and here’s my latest piece from The American Prospect:

“The Vatican treats this as a pilgrimage. We consider it a pilgrimage it with political implications.” So a Palestinian official involved in negotiating the precise form of Pope Francis’s visit to the Holy Land told me yesterday. The comment, though, could as easily have come from an Israeli government source.

The pope’s two hosts agreed on this much and no more: His pilgrimage, so carefully choreographed that even the spontaneous moments were planned in advance, sparkled with symbolism. The battle was over determining what the symbolic journey would stand for. The Palestinians won: They largely succeeded in making Francis’s visit part of their campaign for statehood through international recognition. And yet, both the pope and the Palestinian strategy are subject to the same question: How much does symbolism really count for?

The Vatican itself—not the Israelis or Palestinians—initiated the visit, and in the Vatican’s narrative, it was a peace mission within an entirely Christian context: The pope came to meet Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and to commemorate the breakthrough religious summit 50 years ago in Jerusalem between Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople.

So this trip was, in theory, the Vatican’s show. The Holy See laid out the program it wanted, Israeli and Palestinian sources told me. But even when it drew up plans, it had to maneuver within the protocol each side expected for a head of state. Then it negotiated for months with the two governments on the details.  Pope Francis was the star, and made choices—but often between pieces of pre-written scripts.

The Palestinians won their first victory in March, when the Vatican announced the official itinerary. “The Holy Father will visit three countries: Jordan, the State of Palestine, and Israel,” it said. He’d fly by helicopter directly from Amman to Bethlehem, rather than arriving via Israel, and proceed immediately to a “courtesy meeting with the president of Palestine,” Mahmud Abbas.  The symbolic statement was this: The pope would not be visiting the occupied West Bank, certainly not Judea and Samaria (as Israel officially labels the territory), but independent Palestine. This, presumably, was the pope’s choice – but given Abbas’s ongoing diplomatic efforts for recognition of Palestinian statehood, the Vatican couldn’t evade a decision on whether to use that wording.

Read the rest here.

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