The Corner

The Vatican’s Israel Problem

Israel, after months of enduring rocket attacks against its civilians, has launched an invasion against Hamas terrorists. The Vatican has issued statements decrying the invasion, and one of Italy’s — and the world’s — most respected Vaticanologists has tried to explain what’s wrong with the Vatican’s stance. Writing on the www.chiesa website, Sandro Magister says the following:

The authorities of the Church, and Benedict XVI himself, have raised their voices in condemnation of “the massive violence that has broken out in the Gaza Strip in response to other violence” only after Israel began bombing the installations of the terrorist movement Hamas in that territory. Not before. Not when Hamas was tightening its brutal grip on Gaza, massacring the Muslims faithful to president Abu Mazen, humiliating the tiny Christian communities, and launching rockets every day against the Israelis in the surrounding area.

About Hamas and its vaunted “mission” of wiping the Jewish state from the face of the earth, about Hamas as an outpost for Iran’s expansionist aims in the Middle East, about Hamas as an ally of Hezbollah and Syria, the Vatican authorities have never raised the red alert. They have never shown that they see Hamas as a deadly danger to Israel and an obstacle to the birth of a Palestinian state, in addition to its being a nightmare for the Arab regimes in the area, from Egypt to Jordan to Saudi Arabia.

In the December 29-30 issue of “L’Osservatore Romano,” a front-page commentary by Luca M. Possati, checked word by word by the Vatican secretariat of state, claimed that “for the Jewish state, the only possible idea of security must come through dialogue with all, even those who do not recognize it.” Read: Hamas.

Now, of course, this issue is a minefield for anyone trying to exercise the elementary virtue of justice. Raise questions about the morality of a particular Israeli decision, and you risk the wrath of hotheads accusing you of anti-Semitism; express the opinion that a country has the right to wage war against terrorists launching rockets at it, and some crank will accuse you of believing in “the Immaculate Conception of the State of Israel and its Preservation from all sin, both Original and Actual.” But it’s precisely because tempers are so raw on this issue that we need to make a special effort to understand those with whom we disagree. Magister says that:

“L’Osservatore Romano” gave no emphasis to the statements made during that same period of time by the head of Germany’s government, Angela Merkel, according to whom “it is the legitimate right of Israel to protect its civilian population and to defend its territory,” and the responsibility for the Israeli attack on Gaza belongs “clearly and exclusively” to Hamas.

Affirming this, the German chancellor broke from the chorus of condemnation that came, right on cue, from many state departments – and from the Vatican – after Israel exercised its right of self-defense by force. In Italy, the expert in geopolitics who gave the greatest emphasis to Angela Merkel’s position, in the newspaper “La Stampa,” was Vittorio E. Parsi, a professor of international politics at the Catholic University of Milan and until a few months ago a leading commentator for “Avvenire,” the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference. In “Avvenire,” Parsi had written two years ago, at the time of the war in Lebanon, an editorial entitled “Israel’s reasons,” in which he stated:

“The bitter reality is that, in the Middle East, Israel’s presence is believed to be ‘temporary’, and the guarantee of the Jewish state’s survival lies – as unpleasant as it may be to say this – in its military superiority.”

The problem is that the “temporariness” of the state of Israel is an idea shared by a significant part of the Catholic Church. And it is this idea that influences Vatican policy on the Middle East, that traps it in outdated, ineffective options, and prevents it from grasping new developments, although they have become so evident in recent days. These include the extremely strong and increasing aversion to Hamas on the part of the main Arab regimes and even of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, objectively closer to the views of Israel than the Vatican is.

What’s important here, in my view, is that the Vatican is being misguided not so much by a bias against Israel, as by a misunderstanding of the facts on the ground. Pope Benedict XVI, like the Catholic Church generally, deserves praise for speaking out over the past few decades in defense of the human rights of the Palestinian people; what we have in the current case is a dispute about which specific actions by which power will most conduce to the protection of those rights — and the human rights of others in the region — over the long run. The Pope and the Vatican speak for peace; so do many of those (including me) who have decided that the current Israeli invasion is a wise course of action. If I thought the purpose of this action, and its likely result, was the oppression and subjugation of the Palestinian people, I would oppose it. But I have a reasoned hope that this action is motivated by, and may result in, a greater likelihood of a two-state solution in which Israeli and Arab can live in peace.

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