ROME – From the “dog that didn’t bark” files, it seems highly curious at first blush that a major peace accord for the Middle East was signed at the White House last week – with an explicitly religious reference in the title, no less – and, so far, the Vatican has had absolutely nothing to say about it.
The “Abraham Accords,” the heart of which is normalization of relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel while Israel suspends plans for annexing parts of the West Bank, were announced in August and signed in Washington on Sept. 15. Concurrently, Israel and Bahrain have also announced plans to launch full diplomatic relations.
Aside from reporting the above in Vatican News, the Vatican’s official medial outlet, neither Pope Francis nor any of his senior diplomatic aides have commented on the accords. The chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace said they could be a “step for peace,” but nobody in the Vatican publicly has taken even that cautious stance.
At face value, that’s puzzling. The Middle East has long been the Vatican’s top diplomatic concern, for at least three reasons: Geopolitically, the Israeli/Palestinian divide is the “mother of all conflicts,” and avoiding wider tensions in the region is a key to global security; religiously, the Holy Land is the cradle of Christianity; and pastorally, there’s a small but important Christian minority in the Middle East that tends to be especially vulnerable when conflict erupts.
For those reasons, the Vatican was publicly supportive of both the 1978 Camp David Accords and the 1993 Oslo Accords, in both cases applauding the outcomes and with popes receiving the heads of state involved either before or after the deals were signed.
Moreover, there’s a special reason for Pope Francis to be interested in anything involving the UAE, since that’s where he traveled in February 2019 as part of his strategy of outreach to the Islamic world, and it’s where he signed the highly touted “Document on Human Fraternity” along with Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, widely dubbed the Vatican of the Sunni Muslim world.
That document is expected to supply some of the basis for Francis’s forthcoming encyclical letter on human fraternity, titled in Italian Fratelli Tutti, which he’ll travel to Assisi to sign on Oct. 3. Especially in that context, the Vatican’s basis silence on the Abraham Accords and the UAE’s turn in the spotlight requires explanation.
Presumably, it lies in some version of two basic points.
First, it’s election season in America. As of today, there are 41 days remaining until the election itself on Nov. 3, and just one week before the first debate between President Donald Trump and democratic challenger Joe Biden. No doubt Trump will use the accords as part of the argument for his reelection, and anything the Vatican might say, whether praising them or criticizing them, immediately would be seen as a political move.
The Vatican typically abhors being dragged into partisan domestic debates, doing everything in its power to avoid them, and it’s a special idée fixe of Pope Francis. It’s not eight years and counting that he’s refused to make a homecoming trip to Argentina, and according to friends and allies that’s at least in part because he worries the timing of any such visit might be seen as benefitting one political faction or another in his native country.
Granted, Francis wasn’t too discrete to resist taking what was seen as a shot against then-candidate Trump in February 2016, saying that anyone who wanted to build a wall to keep people out of the country “isn’t Christian.” Yet he’s been more restrained since, avoiding most anything that could be seen as a directly critical comment about the American president, despite the crystal-clear policy differences between the two leaders.
Moreover, not only does this deal likely benefit Trump politically, it also helps Netanyahu in Israel, and neither man is exactly the head of government of the Vatican’s dreams. The Vatican can’t object to any step that seems to promote peace, but it also doesn’t have to go out of its way to praise figures about whom it has reservations on multiple fronts.
Second, the Holy See definitely wants peace in the Middle East, but this isn’t really their plan for it.
The Vatican is a longtime advocate of the two-state solution, meaning sovereignty for the Palestinians, security for Israel, and a special international status for holy sites. According to many observers, the Abraham Accords effectively sideline the Palestinians by carving out separate deals with Arab states, ones in which the Palestinians aren’t a party. If anything, some would argue the accords actually reward Israel for its intransigence, and perhaps mark a pivot point away from regarding sovereignty for the Palestinians as a sine qua non of a lasting peace.
As a longtime advocate of justice for the Palestinians, the Vatican can’t endorse any step that appears to make that less likely, even if it also can’t object to two longtime foes coming to terms while invoking the Biblical archetype of Abraham.
As a footnote, the signing ceremony for the accords came three days before U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly rebuked the pope and the Vatican for not pushing back harder against China for religious freedom violations, so that’s not the reason the Vatican has remained silent. However, going forward, it may provide an additional reason why Rome doesn’t feel inclined to go out of its way to do Pompeo any favors.
As the old saying goes, “If you don’t know what to say, keep quiet and you can’t be wrong.” Right now, the Vatican appears to be taking that wisdom to heart.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.