Saturday, January 11, 2014

Pope engages in “parallel diplomacy” to get peace talks going and stop conflict in Syria

An Ethiopian Orthodox ChristianPope Francis’ visit to the Holy Land is meant to overlap with the massive efforts being made on the part of the Obama administration to ensure a permanent agreement is reached between Israel and Palestine. 

These are American former Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller’s thoughts on the personal diplomatic efforts the Pope is apparently engaged in.

“The Secretary of State John Kerry is currently busy putting down in writing things which both sides have in common,” Miller explained. “This means the next few months will be crucial in working out whether an agreement [on the remaining contentious issues] can be reached” over security, borders, refugees and Jerusalem. 

“The Pope cannot play any formal role in negotiations between presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers but he can help make these a success for everyone through his words and gestures,” Miller added.
But according to Rashid Ismail Khalidi, Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, the fact that Washington’s diplomatic action coincides with the papal visit is a risky business for Francis: he risks being caught up in a tug-of-war between Palestinians who will put pressure on him to support their cause on the one hand and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who will trying to take advantage of the Pope’s visit for his own ends, on the other.

According to Miller, the unconfirmed reports in recent days of clashes between Israel and Palestine over the Jordan Valley, are confirmation that the situation is becoming increasingly heated: “Until now no news was leaked about the negotiations; the fact that they have now means either one or both sides are not happy about something. According to Khalidi therefore, “the Pope’s visit is risky in terms of image as he has not yet clarified his position on the situation in the Middle East. Palestinians are not at all happy with US diplomacy, as in the best case scenario all it will do is to form the State of Palestine on 20% of the historical territories.”

Informed Israeli and Palestinian sources consider the possibility of the Pope commenting on the negotiations directly as “highly improbable” but according to both sources we could well see some personal diplomatic gestures from the Pope.

Marina Ottaway, a Middle East analyst at the Woodrow Wilson Center, says these could be ecumenical gestures, as suggested by the Pope’s itinerary: he will be Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Amman, cities where Francis will have the chance to address Jews, Christians and Muslims. But Khalidi pointed out another possibility: Francis may want to visit the Middle East in haste so as to address an issue that is very close to his heart, that is, the rights of Christians in the region. He certainly cannot go to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or Egypt to talk about this as his safety would be at risk.
Whatever Francis may have planned for his trip to the Holy Land in May, Israel is awaiting his arrival with a great sense of curiosity given the close ties Bergoglio had with the Jewish community back when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires. 

Leaders of the Jewish community in the Argentinean capital described “visits to our synagogue” on very “important occasions” such as the lighting of the Menorah (the candelabrum that recalls the re-consecration of the Temple of Jerusalem which the Greeks had defiled) and the evening prayers that are said every year before Jewish New Year’s Eve.

The title of the editorial in Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, “Jews need the Pope”, shows how popular Francis is in Israel. The editorial describes Francis as better even than Israel’s chief rabbis, not just because of his personal determination and strategic vision but also because of his humour.

In this context, Benjamin Netanyahu may try to take advantage of the run-up to the Pope-s visit to complete the bilateral agreement Israel and the Holy See reached in December 1993, by concluding an economic-financial agreement. 

But Sergio Minerbi, former Israeli diplomat and a veteran of Vatican-Israeli relations, is cautious: “Netanyahu will only meet the Pope for a few minutes in the Notre Dame hotel in Jerusalem. This building belongs to the Church, so there’s still a long way to go before real dialogue begins.”

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