The Middle East needs mediation in its long standing conflicts, especially now after the failure of recent attempts by the U.S.
Maybe not everyone inside Israel and Palestine wants to start a new peace process.
But it is difficult to oppose the new initiative by Pope Francis, shrewdly downgraded as a religious one. Francis embodies a soft power challenge to hard power.
Why might the Pope achieve something and arrive where neither the U.S. nor the major European countries didn’t? First of all, because he is credible.
Old friends create new alliances
His recent choice to visit the Middle East accompanied by Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires and Omar Aboud of the Islamic Centre of the Argentine Republic, two old friends of his, was a long-sighted and strategic one.
Their presence was meant to say to the Pope’s Palestinian, Orthodox and Israeli counterparts that interfaith dialogue was not a novelty to him. It uncovered that he had practiced such a dialogue for years when he served as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, as his friends could witness.
He proposed the Buenos Aires model as a recipe to be tried on the global stage.
Irrespective of geopolitical restraints and taboos towards both the Palestinians and Israel, he talks directly to the other actors, both cautiously and in a very pragmatic, straightforward way.
A new world pontiff bridging old divides
In that quest he is helped by the fact that he is a Latin American, post-Cold War and in some way post-Western pontiff.
Francis notably does not recognize the West-East divide – and may be not even the North-South one. He just knows that the Catholic Church needs to open up, to get out of its certainties and to try to enlarge its reach. And he perceives that old borders, both geopolitical and mental ones, need to be redrawn.
Francis pursues a step-by-step strategy, without any already set goal, if not the possibility to widen religious freedom and to avoid wars.
Creating a multi-polar Middle East
Trying to promote peace in the Middle East means to fight the temptation to balkanize the area with one-religion, one-party States. The latter approach is a sure-fire way to an eternal conflict.
Multi-polarism is viewed by the Holy See as the best way to make soft power and diplomacy matter and influence decisions, possibly smoothing rooted and sometimes rotten tensions.
The last 15 years or so showed that both the geopolitical and strategic unipolarism of the U.S. is outdated, along with the moral unipolarism of the Vatican.
A wider game
Both of them are parts of a wider game, in which the old superiority of the West and of Western values is challenged and at stake.
The move made by Pope Francis in September 2013, giving a major role to Russia’s president Vladimir Putin in order to avoid a conflict in Syria, was suggested by real-politik and by a clear reading of the actors on the ground. In that case he spoke out because that was the right moment do behave accordingly.
After contributing to avoid the war in Syria and just watching from a distance the evolution in Ukraine, Pope Francis has now proposed a step forward in the Middle East, likely the world’s most troubled region. He is trying to help build if not peace, a bridge to an environment more focused on dialogue.
This corresponds to Francis’s penchant to be a natural bridge builder.
Building bridges is his conviction, his choice and his need. The Catholic Church is weakening, in the Arab world. Christian minorities are being squeezed and persecuted. So Francis badly wants and needs dialogue. And he is ready to sacrifice much of the Vatican’s old power to get results.
Following his three day trip to Jordan and Israel in late May, the head of the Catholic Church invited Israeli president Shimon Peres and the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to visit Rome and pray together with him on June 8th. Stay tuned.