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Pope's agenda in Israel: honoring Holocaust victims, urging two-state solution

As he landed in Tel Aviv, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of need for a 'just resolution' for Israelis and Palestinians

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"Every speech will try to maneuver between all parties," says Amnon Ramon, a professor at Hebrew University's Swiss Center for Conflict Research, Management, & Resolution. "I think Israelis will be listening to what he says at Yad Vashem [Israel's Holocaust Memorial Museum], and when in Bethlehem he will say something about the Palestinian tragedy. It's quite a complicated mission."

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Professor Ramon notes the difference between this visit and that of Pope John Paul II, who came here in March 2000, half a year before the second intifada, or uprising, broke out. There was far more optimism in the air, bolstered by a worldwide appreciation for the ailing pope, factors that paved the way for a much smoother visit.

By comparison, Ramon says, some people – Muslims and Jews alike – may hold fast to some of the negative impressions surrounding Pope Benedict.

"If you make a few mistakes, even if you try to correct them, it's hard to take back what you said, and so this is a difficult mission for the pope," he says. "Even though the Vatican tried to heal the wounds, still these are images that a lot of people remember."

The pope is also faced with the challenge of advancing Middle East peace without being overtly political.

Upon landing in Israel, the pope said that the Palestinians should have a "homeland" with their own borders, though he refrained from using the word "state." Israel's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanayhu, has not endorsed the two-state solution accepted in Washington, making the issue of language a touchy subject.

"I plead with all those responsible to explore every possible avenue in the search for a just resolution of the outstanding difficulties, so that both peoples may live in peace in a homeland of their own, within secure and internationally recognized borders," the pope stated.

From Israel's perspective, the pope's visit is expected to stimulate pilgrimage to the Holy Land and emphasize freedom of access to the holy sites. Mayor Nir Barkat said in a welcome speech that "Jerusalem is an open place of all religions and we intend to deepen our links with all the world's great religions."

But Palestinians are keen to present an alternative image of reality, based on the fact that many West Bank Muslims find it impossible to obtain permits from Israel to reach Jerusalem and pray in the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam.

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