Pope's talent for diplomacy shows in Mideast trip

Posted: Jun. 3, 2014 9:45 am Updated: Jun. 24, 2014 12:15 pm

POPE FRANCIS was guaranteed to make headlines on his recent visit to the Middle East just by the fact that the head of the Roman Catholic Church was going to one of the most tense regions in the world.

He did make headlines ... but he also showed he has a remarkable talent for diplomacy and a flair for the dramatic gesture.

The safest course would have been to script every moment of his itinerary and reduce the risk of controversy. So what did he do? Made an apparently impromptu invitation to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres to visit the Vatican to pray for peace. Both men accepted.

Since Peres does not lead Israel's government -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does -- this is not likely the stuff of a big diplomatic breakthrough. Still, it was a grand symbolic gesture: Raising the prospect of Jewish and Palestinian leaders praying together at the seat of Roman Catholicism.

Apparently at Abbas' urging, Francis made an unexpected stop at a graffiti-covered section of Israel's security barrier on the edge of Bethlehem, where the pope touched his forehead to the wall and said a prayer. Palestinians view the security wall as evidence of Israel's intolerable control over their territory. Israel sees the wall as essential to its defense against Palestinian attacks.

A day later, at the suggestion of Netanyahu, Francis made an unscheduled visit to a memorial to victims of terrorism. He also visited the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism who espoused the idea of the modern Jewish state.

That visit rankled some Palestinians. Overall, though, Palestinians had to be pleased that the pope during this trip repeatedly supported their bid for statehood.

The journey created no breakthrough in the long and immensely vexing process of reaching peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But the pope did force leaders on both sides, at least momentarily, out of their comfort zones. There's value in that.