The official TV crews that will be documenting every step by Benedict XVI, from the moment he lands in the Promised Land today, have been given clear instructions: Keep it civilian. Thousands of security personnel, police, military, Shin Bet security service, and of course the Pope’s own personal Swiss Guard detail, will be ensuring that the elderly guest makes it back to the plane in one piece, but one of the main objectives of the PR campaign the Israeli government has constructed around the papal visit, is to keep them out of sight as much as possible.
“This is the biggest media event to happen in Israel for years that has nothing to do with wars or terror,” says one of the government officials involved with the planning, “so we are doing everything possible to make sure that the pictures coming out of this visit do not include military details.” For this purpose, not only have the camera angles been meticulously planned, but the security arrangements call for no soldiers or border policemen to be in the inner circle of the pontiff’s entourage. The police officers who will be close to the entourage have all been issued with new, ceremonial-looking uniforms and none of them are to have their weapons visible. Even on the outer circles, efforts have been made to keep the security presence as unobtrusive as possible.
Appearances are everything in this visit. Different factions in the Vatican and in the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority, the local Catholic leadership, the Chief Rabbinate, the Islamic Movement, are all pursuing different agendas, and for months already have been attempting to extract maximum political benefit from the visit. Benedict will have to perform a high-wire act, walking above these conflicting interests, without falling into the minefield.
One needs to recall that six months ago, when the original invitation was issued by President Shimon Peres, following discreet encouragement by the papal nuncio to Israel, and then accepted by the Vatican, the situation in the region was radically different. Since then, Israel has put itself in the international hot seat with its operation in Gaza. Subsequent to that, the electorate voted in the new Netanyahu government, which until proven differently, has to contend with an aggressive right-wing image. The Foreign Ministry was even concerned that the visit would be canceled. The Vatican spokesman could have cited a minor problem with the health of the 82-year-old Benedict and his pilgrimage would have been suspended indefinitely.
On the very week the Gaza operation ended, Benedict committed what was certainly the most dreadful faux pas of his papacy to date, when he reversed the excommunication of four bishops who had been followers of the rebel archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, including Holocaust-denier Richard Williamson. The pope has yet to live down the storm that move created both within the Church and the almost total breakdown it caused in the Vatican’s relations with the Jewish people.
At that juncture, a cancellation of the Pope’s visit to the Jewish state became unthinkable. Those in the Vatican hierarchy who originally counseled against the visit certainly felt vindicated, but it was too late.
But the fact that Benedict is now compelled to carry out the visit doesn’t mean that he will be doing any favors to Israel, certainly not to its current government. Nonetheless, official Israel is looking to achieve three objectives from the Pope’s presence. The first is all about image. The Pope may not have many soldiers, and even the degree of his spiritual following is uncertain, there is no question that it is nothing like that his charismatic predecessor enjoyed. But he still attracts the attention of the international media wherever he goes. The hope is that high-profile meetings with the Israeli leadership, not to mention his very presence here, will boost the country’s basic legitimacy, something that while never admitting to it openly, the politicians realize has taken a buffeting. “We hate acknowledging it, but ever since the Gaza operation, we have become pariahs in so many places around the globe,” says one senior government advisor involved in the planning of the visit, “promoting the Pope’s visit to the state is part of changing that.” Great expectations, but if anyone thinks that Benedict will actively say anything to bolster Israel’s diplomatic case, they are gravely mistaken. The Vatican knows that every word, every gesture, will be recorded and analyzed, and has made it clear that this is simply a pilgrimage, not a political visit. The Pope will steer well away from politics in all his speeches. His itinerary has been closely vetted. He will be meeting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, but not in the Prime Minister’s office like other visiting heads of state, but in Nazareth, where he will be celebrating mass. The same rule will apply to his dealings with the Palestinian Authority. The Vatican made it clear that it would not go along with the Palestinian plans to have him speak from a stage erected in the Al-Aida refugee camp, immediately adjacent to the security barrier. Benedict will visit the camp near Bethlehem, but only after the Vatican received assurances that the stage had been moved. The Vatican refused even to consider a demand that he visit Hamas-controlled Gaza, though he will accept a delegation of Catholics from the Strip who have been awarded special exit permits.
The second objective is financial. The government hopes the visit will boost the flagging tourism industry, with a large injection of Catholic pilgrims, rushing to emulate the Holy Father. Pope John Paul II’s millennium visit did bring about an increase in Catholic tourism in the following years, there doesn’t seem to be a large degree of excitement over the new visit. Fewer than ten thousand Catholics have arrived to accompany their Pope this time, and as yet, there has been no major surge in further reservations. A papal call to the faithful to make personal pilgrimages would be worth untold millions to the local economy but the government has not received any assurance that such a call will be made. As it is, the Catholic Church has many demands of its members, an expensive pilgrimage to the Holy Land is nowhere near the top of the list. Even they already have the money to travel, the Pope wants them to come to him in Rome first. The third objective is being promoted mainly by Shimon Peres. The country’s president, an incurable optimist, believes that a message from the most prominent clergyman in the world on the importance of peace between the world’s religions can push the stagnant peace process forward. On this at least, Benedict has already delivered, saying in his address at Mount Nebo that “the ancient tradition of pilgrimage to the holy places also reminds us of the inseparable bond between the church and the Jewish people.” He will certainly carry on in this vein in his speeches in Israel, but it is questionable if any of this will really make a difference in the bloody relations between Jews and Muslims. Benedict will not be meeting with Hamas representatives and their proxy within Israel, the Islamic Movement, has already announced that it will boycott the visit, citing his dismissive comments regarding the Prophet Muhammad in Regensburg three years ago. There are also Jewish boycotters, mainly religious ultra right-wingers such as MK Michael Ben-Ari and Safed Chief Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, both of whom apparently are incensed by what they see as Holocaust denial in the Vatican. The notion that the Pope will meet with Peres, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Chief Rabbis, wave his papal staff, and as a result, the levels of Muslim-Jewish hatred will be dramatically reduced is fanciful, even by Peres’ standards. Benedict is powerless even to act on behalf of his own co-religionists. His main aim in visiting Israel and Palestine, according to sources in the Vatican is to assist the beleaguered Christians in the region, many of whom have been emigrating by the thousands in recent years.
As is the case among all other Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel’s occupation is a major source of their sorrows, but the Christians among them have the added burden of being persecuted at the hands of the radical Islamists. But for diplomatic reasons, the Pope can offer them little comfort. He is painfully aware that any criticism of Islamist attitudes in the presence of his brethren will only exacerbate their situation. And since he can’t speak out against the Muslims, he will probably also keep quite about the Israeli occupation.
Throughout his visit, Benedict will have to maintain this impossible balancing act. His skill be especially tested when he visits the Holocaust memorial site Yad Vashem. Ultra-conservative elements in the Vatican are already angry with him for agreeing to visit the place, since the critical captions beneath the photograph of their favorite pope, Pius XII, have yet to be altered. Benedict will not enter the museum, with its contentious captions, but make do with the adjacent memorial hall. Many Jews will feel that this is not enough, and will expect the German Pope, with his own Hitler Youth past, to make a further gesture, perhaps an apology for the Holy See’s conduct during the war years. But this will never happen, and Benedict’s speech at Yad Vashem, if there is one at all, will almost certainly be anodyne. Whatever he says, there are too many people to run afoul of. “The Pope will be able to say so little in the visit,” says a senior Jewish inter-faith activist, “his presence will have to be enough. Like Woody Allen once said, “90 percent of success is just showing up.”