By Frank Wessling
Finding peace in the small spot of Earth Christians call the Holy Land is harder than spotting a needle in a haystack. Yet Pope Benedict XVI spent eight days there earlier this month attempting to water the tree of peace.
He reminded both Israel’s Jews and the surrounding Arab population — more or less hostile to the presence of the Israeli state in their midst — that “peace can only come when the parties to a conflict are willing to move beyond their grievances and work toward common goals.”
He pointed out that each side must take seriously “the concerns and fears of the other, striving to build an atmosphere of trust.”
If all of the parties involved in the tension between Israel and its Arab neighbors would hear the pope’s words, contemporary history would be different. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened in the past and, barring a miracle, won’t happen this time. There are absolutist elements on both sides that refuse to accept the compromises needed for peace.
This is not meant to denigrate the effort of Pope Benedict in his “pilgrimage of peace,” but only to inject the hard issues into this story that explain why it goes on and on and on unresolved.
“Move beyond their grievances…?” The Arab Palestinians who want a homeland that overlooks and almost surrounds Israel also want to move a million or more of their people into Israel in a “return” to the homes their families left in the 1948 conflict that created the state of Israel. The effect — and it is not too much to assume the intention — of such a return would be to undermine the integrity and safety of Israel as a Jewish homeland. This, they claim, is needed for “justice.”
At the same time, the most conservative religious elements in Israel have their eyes fixed on biblical times and insist on their “right” to live in all of the area that made up the land of Israel 2,000 and more years ago. This would include what the world now refers to as the “west bank” of the Jordan River, the land conceded by most people as a preferred new Palestinian homeland.
A large percentage of Palestinians support political leaders who reject Israel’s right to exist. They lob mortars into Israel and, prior to Israel’s building of a security wall, they also sent a stream of suicide bombers into Israeli marketplaces.
Now a majority of Israelis support political parties that are wary of compromise which leaves them vulnerable. They favor the “security” of a wall and a strong military. Many Palestinians also feel no need to compromise and reconcile because their much higher birthrate ensures the goal of overwhelming Israel in the long run.
Pope Paul VI in 1964 made the first visit by a pope to the holy land. While there he described himself as “a pilgrim of peace” and said, “I beg above all for the gift of reconciliation.” In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II traveled to Israel and prayed, “May peace be God’s gift to the land he chose as his own.”
Continuing in that ministry of hope, Benedict left his own plea for peace last week. He concluded his Wednesday visit to the refugee camp Al Aida in Bethlehem with these words:
“To all of you I renew my plea for a profound commitment to cultivate peace and non-violence, following the example of St. Francis and other great peacemakers. Peace has to begin in the home, in the family, in the heart. I continue to pray that all parties to the conflict in these lands will have the courage and imagination to pursue the challenging but indispensable path of reconciliation. May peace flourish once more in these lands. May God bless his people with peace.”
May God indeed bless us with the gift of reconciliation and peace everywhere. And may the political leaders and diplomats who do the work of God in the most difficult circumstances be blessed with the patience, imagination and wisdom needed for real progress toward that goal.