Pope Francis is helicoptering into the smoldering ashes of the Mideast peace process this weekend — almost literally: The pontiff will fly by helicopter directly from Jordan into Bethlehem, in what the Vatican is calling the State of Palestine. Bypassing the traditional route to the West Bank, through Israel, and suggesting that the Palestinian-controlled territory is (or should be, stat) a sovereign state is only the beginning of the political minefield Pope Francis is walking.
When world leaders travel to Israel-Palestine, everything becomes inherently symbolic and political, and they can either tread lightly or carry a big stick. The pope is stomping heavily on both sides in hopes of balancing everything out. If he's angering some Israelis by signaling strong support for a Palestinian state, performing mass on Mount Zion, and meeting with Palestinian refugees, he's riling up Palestinians by laying a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism.
Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi says the pope's choices are dictated by schedule and United Nations terminology, adding that the three-day sojourn is "purely a religious trip," The New York Times reports. "He will try to balance," adds Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skoka, a friend of Pope Francis who will be traveling with him to the Holy Land. "Total balance, this is what he is." The problem is that balance requires a center, and the lack of a mutually agreeable middle ground is the main impediment to Mideast peace. Just ask John Kerry or the score of diplomats who preceded him.