KEY WEST, Florida – Normally speaking, when a pope hits the road, all other Vatican operations enter a state of suspended animation. Appointments, documents and statements are held up awaiting his return, because nobody’s supposed to distract from the message he’s traveling to deliver.
The fact the Vatican made an exception during Pope Francis’s Nov. 19-26 trip to Thailand and Japan demonstrates precisely how high they think the stakes are.
On Nov. 20, as the pontiff was arriving in Thailand, the Vatican issued a statement reiterating its support for a “two-state solution” to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, apparently in reaction to the recent announcement by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the United States no longer regards Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as a violation of international law. Many analysts believe that decision makes the prospects for a two-state solution more remote.
“In the context of recent decisions that risk undermining further the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the already fragile regional stability, the Holy See reiterates its position of a two-state solution for two peoples, as the only way to reach a complete solution to this age-old conflict,” the statement said.
Presumably now that Francis is back in the Vatican, his diplomatic team will ratchet up its efforts to make that statement stick.
In itself, there’s nothing novel in the Vatican’s advocacy of statehood for both Israelis and Palestinians, since it’s the position it’s held since partition in 1948. Normally, the Vatican adds recommendations for a special status for Jerusalem and protection of sacred sites in the Holy Land.
In part, that reflects the Vatican’s belief that since the active UN resolutions on the issue envision both a two-state solution and a “special status” for Jerusalem, it’s important to preserve those as starting points in any negotiations toward the aim of achieving international protections for the holy sites recognized by Israel.
What’s interesting is that the Vatican is holding fast at a time when many voices on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian divide are declaring the idea of a two-state solution off the table, saying it’s time to move on.
Just as the Vatican statement was making the rounds, for instance, the new issue of Foreign Affairs was hitting newsstands, featuring an essay by Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. Its title is, “There Will Be a One-State Solution, But What Kind of State Will It Be?”
“The two-state solution is dead,” Munayyer writes. “And good riddance: it never offered a realistic path forward.”
A 2017 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that two out of three Palestinians were opposed to the two-state solution. One resident of a refugee camp in Ramallah named Nashat Salhieh, quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, seemed to sum up much of the sentiment.
“I want to go back to my country,” he said. “I don’t care who will rule me.”
For Palestinians, weariness with the idea of a two-state solution is driven both by the sense that any state Israel would realistically accept probably wouldn’t be viable, and also frustration with their own leadership in the Palestinian Authority.
As Munayyer put it, the quest for sovereignty by the successor to the PLO is “driven less by the needs of Palestinian nationalism than the personal interests of Palestinian leaders.”
Meanwhile, a Haaretz poll in May found that only 34 percent of Israelis now support a two-state solution, and all the parties currently vying for the country’s leadership support some form of the annexation plan.
For a strong majority of Israelis, rule over an undivided Jerusalem and at least some share of the West Bank is axiomatic, meaning “statehood” as the Palestinians have envisioned it just isn’t in the cards.
Further, Israelis fear the consequences of Palestinian statehood. Here’s how Israeli academic and journalist Moshe Dann put it in 2017:
“Establishing a second Palestinian state, or third if one includes ‘Hamastan’ in the Gaza Strip, would lead to destabilization and increase the chances for violence between competing entities, gangs and militias which could spill over into Israel,” he wrote.
“With Islamist forces waiting to take advantage of any power vacuum, the area would plunge into Somalia-like chaos.”
The diagnosis put forward by Munayyer, Dann and others is that what’s at issue now isn’t whether there will be one or two states between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea; that question, they say, has been answered in favor of “one.” The issue is the nature of that state – whether it will be a de facto apartheid system, or a genuine democracy in which Arabs and non-Arabs are both full citizens.
If that analysis is correct, the risk for the Vatican arguably is fighting the last war, missing the chance to play a constructive role in a new situation because it’s stuck in an old paradigm.
It’s an especially striking question, because as a rule the Vatican tries to make a distinction between principle and policy. The Church’s role, it says, is to propound eternal values, regarding policy choices about how to implement those values as a matter for prudential judgment. Yet in this case, the Vatican appears stubbornly wedded to one specific way of achieving the values involved, which pivot on doing justice to both sides in the conflict.
In all honesty, the Vatican’s potential contribution to any peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians may be limited. Perhaps the best it can hope for is raising the profile of the small Christian minority in the region, thereby offering it some insulation from whatever comes next.
On the other hand, Francis repeatedly has demonstrated a capacity to make himself relevant in global affairs, including his high-profile denunciations of nuclear weapons while he was in Japan.
Perhaps his Vatican team could help move the needle on the world’s most chronic conflict too – even if the price of admission turns out to be a willingness to maintain its principles, but rethink its policy.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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