Double-teaming peace in Israel

Though Secretary of State John Kerry and Pope Francis are operating independently, together they form a powerful force for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Brendan Smialowski/Pool/Reuters
US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas talk before a meeting at the presidential compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Jan. 3, 2014.

As 2014 opens, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Pope Francis have become an unlikely tag team aiming to accomplish what some deem impossible: an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

One is emphasizing perspiration. The other is promising inspiration.

In recent days Secretary Kerry has been shuttling furiously between key players in the region, from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to a pair of influential nearby kings, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. Kerry has kept his diplomacy positive in tone and close to the vest on details.

His immediate goal is to come up with a framework agreement that would set out, in general terms, how a series of contentious (some say intractable) issues that divide the Israelis and Palestinians would be resolved. They include recognition of the state of Israel by the Palestinians and an agreement on what land would be included in any new Palestinian state, including land now in Israeli hands.

Kerry has kept his eyes on the prize, defying those who see the problem as unsolvable. “[I]t is clear to me that we can work to bridge the remaining gaps that do exist,” Kerry said in recent days. Although the road to peace is a difficult one, “this is not mission impossible.”

While Kerry works tirelessly on the nuts and bolts, a May visit to the region by Pope Francis may provide another key ingredient: moral suasion.

The pope’s coming trip to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan (May 24-26) is not being billed as political. One stated aim is to mark the 50 years since Pope Paul VI and the leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Ecumenical Patriarch Atengora, met in Jerusalem. Pope Francis and the present Orthodox Christian leader, Bartholomew, are scheduled to hold a joint mass at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified and resurrected.

The pope will also meet with both Jewish and Muslim leaders. Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a friend of the pope, says he hopes Pope Francis will visit the Western Wall, which is sacred to Jews, and pray with him in Bethlehem “to show the world it is possible.”

The Vatican has characterized the visit only in general terms, saying it was aimed “mainly at spreading and promoting love, cooperation, and peace among all inhabitants of the region.”

Pope Francis has gained international attention, and much praise, for showing a special concern for the world’s poor and for pointing out the problem of income inequality. His trip to the Holy Land may magnify his voice dramatically on the issue of peace.

On the surface, the questions that divide Palestinians and Israelis are far from being settled, and there’s little indication now of how the gaps could be closed. But a change of hearts must come before a change of minds. And the pope’s message of peace could set the tone for the region at large.

An atmosphere of growing trust and respect, and the acknowledgment of the common humanity of both sides, is needed before any byzantine negotiations can yield fruit. The conversation must move to a higher plain first, recognizing the immense benefits both sides gain from peace, before it can get down to the essential spadework.

Though they are not working consciously in tandem, Kerry and Pope Francis are in essence a powerful team promoting peace. Their efforts give hope to all those around the world whose hearts yearn for an Israeli-Palestinian accord.

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