Pope Francis traveled to the Holy Land on May 24-26, 2014. He visited sites of Jewish, Christian and Muslim significance, and met both Palestinian and Israeli leaders. The Pope prayed for peace and vowed to make an effort to help end the conflict between Israeli and Palestinians. He invited Israeli president Peres and Palestinian president Abbas to join him in a prayer for peace at the Vatican, which they did on June 9th, 2014. Given the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian talks organized by US Secretary of State, John Kerry; does the Pope stand a chance of restarting the peace process?

pope_peres_abbas v1

Pope Francis with Presidents Peres and Abbas

Pope Francis appears to be a worthy leader of the Catholic Church: modest, genuine and well intentioned. And with 1.2 billion believers, he definitely holds some influence in today’s world.  So let’s examine the odds of Pope Francis succeeding in his mission.

If you believe in the efficacy of prayers, then one coming from the head of such a large religious group surely carries a lot of weight. But there’s a bit of a challenge with the concept that a prayer will solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem. A prayer is addressed to God, in this case asking him to intervene in the folly of men. But isn’t it the very same God that promised the land of Israel to the Jews? So unless he changed his mind lately, he is unlikely to renege on his promise.

If we set aside the power of prayers, the Pope can still play a significant role in solving this conflict. Unlike the United States (or other super powers), the Vatican has very few geopolitical interests in the Middle East. Yes, there were times when the Papacy laid claims to the holy land (remember the Crusades?), but those days are long gone. Pope Francis can potentially become a neutral mediator between the two sides.

But having a neutral mediator, religious or not, isn’t sufficient to solve a conflict. There has to be a common ground the two sides can agree on. Plus it helps if one or both parties feel pressure and urgency to compromise.  Looking at the analysis in my previous post on the subject (“Israeli Palestinian Peace in our life time?”) then little has changed:

 Israel maximum offer is far from the minimum Palestinians will accept

The one thing that has changed recently is the so called “reconciliation” between Hamas and Fatah.  No, I don’t believe that Hamas suddenly mellowed out and decided to reach a peace agreement with Israel. I believe this is a “marriage of convenience” that serves the tactical needs of both parties.

Hamas found themselves isolated after turning their back on Iran, and betting their future on the “Muslim Brothers” in Egypt. After a surprising twist in the plot, the Army regained control in Egypt, and the Muslim Brothers are on the run – again. With Turkey and Israel close to putting behind their Mavi Marmara crisis, and Syria being eyeballs deep in a civil war, Hamas has few remaining allies to turn to.

Fatah has little to show for their “peace process” with Israel. However given the devastation caused to Palestinian cities during the previous armed struggle with Israel (aka 2nd Intifada), they are unlikely to start another one. Abbas seems to set his sights on gaining formal recognition of a Palestinian State from the UN. With the support of the Hamas, Abbas can present a unified Palestinian front and perhaps increase his chances of achieving his goal.

Israel is unlikely to budge at this point. Its economy is doing fine and it can easily shrug off any BDS campaigns. The surrounding Middle East regimes are busy with other problems and pose no immediate military threat. The US, who was best positioned to pressure Israel into an agreement, has taken a step back. All in all, there is no urgency to offer the Palestinians more than Israel already did.

As for Pope Francis prayers: unfortunately the two sides still can’t agree on a common solution, and the gap between them remains as large as before. He will truly need a divine intervention and perhaps even a miracle to solve this one…