Sometimes the obstacles to peace appear so great and so many that to face them seems humanly impossible. But what seemed unthinkable even a few short years ago is now a reality or at least a matter of open discussion. Pope John Paul II offered that reflection on September 18 as he received a new Israeli ambassador to the Vatican. Speaking encouragingly of the peace process in the Middle East, he observed that the very fact that negotiations were still underway was itself a significant development. The next day, in the face of what they described as a hardening of the Palestinian position, the Israelis halted the discussions. This pause in the negotiations is another of the countless fits and starts that have been going on for decades. A half-century of hostility, distrust and armed conflict have taken their toll. So, too, have the memories of pogroms, extermination, confiscation and displacement. Mutual respect is in short supply. Each side seems determined to hold fast to positions that are, in the long run, untenable. And each side knows that. But the resolution of cultural, religious and geopolitical conflicts is not easy, so for the present there will be diplomatic posturing, offers of concessions, proposals and counter-proposals.
In the movement toward a peace settlement, the major sticking point is the future status of Jerusalem. Since the Israelis and the Palestinians seem to have reached an impasse, it might be time to reexamine the position of the Holy See, which has been the same for 50 years. Stated again this month by the pope, it is that the history and the present reality of interreligious relations in the Holy Land is such that no just and lasting peace is foreseeable without some form of support from the international community. The pope repeated his call for an international statute to guarantee the religious character of Jerusalem, a holy city for Christians, Jews and Muslims. He affirmed that such a statute would not only guarantee the preservation of and free access to the three religions’ holy sites but also the free exercise of the religious and civil rights pertaining to the members, places and activities of the various communities.
The Vatican position has been consistent and just. Far from looking only to the peace and security of the Christian communities in Jerusalem, Israel and Palestine, it takes into account the need to examine the present situation and to improve the everyday life of all who live there. At present, there are in place harsh restrictions on the Arab inhabitants of Jerusalem. There is an inequality of social services among the different sectors of the city in everything from the provision of health care to the quality of schooling. Inequalities exist in access to the bureaucracy, access that is utterly essential for gaining authorization for everything from marriage to residence permits. People should not be made to feel like aliens in their own land, but that is exactly what has been happening. To its credit, Israeli society has within it many outspoken critics of this harsh and unequal treatment. But these advocates for justice are regularly vilified by extreme elements in the country, and their more compassionate and moderate views are usually unheeded.
One of the code words that has become popular in the conflicting rhetoric is sovereignty. But this concept can be so broadly defined that it can be either a major problem or part of an eventual solution. What does sovereignty mean, and does it always mean the same thing? Is it political, involving boundaries and checkpoints? Jerusalem long suffered from that. Is it spiritual? Do not Christianity, Judaism and Islam, as religions, already possess Jerusalem? Is it practical sovereignty: how do water and electricity get supplied, who provides public transportation, and where? Again the Vatican City State comes to mind: a sovereign state, entirely surrounded by another sovereign state, with which it is admittedly friendly, though that was not always so. It seems to be a fanciful solution, but certainly not more fanciful than the proposal floated at the recent Camp David meeting to declare the Old City of Jerusalem a national park.
There continue to be setbacks in the negotiations. And there are flash points that pose a risk to a lasting peace, such as the ongoing controversy over the construction of a Mosque virtually at the door of the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth and the consequent threats to pilgrims who have had stones and garbage thrown at them and been assaulted with anti-Christian insults. But there is also hope and good will. It is in the best interest of the people who have to live their daily lives in the Holy Land that there be peace and security. It is in their best interest that they respect one another enough to live in the land in peace. Reconciliation and prosperity could even be envisioned. Let us hope that the leaders on both sides consider their people more than their carved-in-stone positionsthat there may be peace for the city and the land.