A Tale of Two Leaders

One of the Israeli government’s initial acts in the aftermath of Hamas’ attack on Israel took me by surprise.  Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican conveyed an urgent message to Pope Francis.  The message was more a demand than a request, and that demand was for Pope Francis to portray Israel unambiguously as the victim and Hamas as the heinous aggressor in any comments he would make about the conflict.  

Israel’s demand was highly unusual and left me curious.  Fortunately, a knowledgeable Vatican observer living in Rome, John Allen, helped me understand Israel’s action.  Allen points out that the Israeli government and its supporters in the US have long been frustrated with the stance on the Palestinian situation taken by the Vatican, its insistence that the Palestinian people deserve the same human rights as Israelis.

John Allen’s second explanation for Israel’s demand is more nuanced.  The Israeli government has followed closely Pope Francis’ response to the war in Ukraine.  The pope’s response to that crisis has deviated from the prevailing view voiced in the US, Europe, and elsewhere, that view being to vilify Russia and particularly Putin.  Pope Francis prays for an end to that war, but when he prays for the Ukrainians, he also prays for the Russian people.  When Pope Francis sent an envoy to Kiev, he later sent the same envoy to Moscow.  

It is wrong to conclude that Pope Francis is pro-Russian or anti-Israeli.  Pope Francis’ even-handed approach to the war in Ukraine is part of his strategy and his hope that he or one of his successors might play a mediating role in future peace talks.  The action of the Israeli government last week cautioned Pope Francis to not express even-handed comments about Hamas and Israel.  The Israeli ambassador was saying to the pope, “Don’t you dare do to us what you’ve done to Ukraine.”

Pope Francis has already disappointed the Israelis and many in the US.  On the day after Hamas’ invasion and slaughter of Israelis, Pope Francis prayed publicly for all those suffering in Israel and Gaza and noted that nothing good comes from war and violence.  In this statement, Pope Francis acknowledged that Hamas’ attack on Israel brought immense suffering to innocent Israeli citizens.  But he also acknowledged that life in Gaza for Palestinians has been a life of immense suffering on a daily basis.

Pope Francis’ stance is in sharp contrast to that taken by President Biden, who traveled to Israel to show our nation’s support for Israel by standing alongside Netanyahu.  But Biden’s trip poses a dilemma.  He cannot stand solely with Israel.  He must also advocate for the Palestinian people, reminding the Israeli government that yes, Hamas is made up of Palestinians, but only a small percentage of Palestinians belong to Hamas.

And therein lies Biden’s problem.  His response to Hamas’ attack was immediate, describing Hamas as evil, a terrorist organization showing its barbarity by slaughtering innocent women and children.  He backed up his words by ordering a flotilla of US warships to Israel’s coastline, a warning to any of Israel’s Arab and Middle East neighbors who might be tempted to attack Israel on another front.

It’s hard to quantify the support of any leader, but if Pope Francis is fifty-fifty in his comments about Israel and Palestine, Biden is more like ninety-ten—ninety percent for Israel, ten for Palestinians.

In the end, however, the difference between the two leaders might prove valuable in achieving true peace in the region.  In any future talks, Biden or another US president will likely have little credibility with the Palestinians, but he or she will be in a position to nudge Israel to accept what seems inevitable—an independent Palestinian state.  In those same future peace talks, Pope Francis or any Vatican official will have little credibility with the Israeli government, but he will likely be trusted by the Palestinians.

I admire both Pope Francis and President Biden.  But the war between Israel and Hamas has helped me give up any need for leaders whom I admire to be on the same page, reading off the same script.