A missed opportunity
The pope's visit shows that there is no real dialogue between Israel and the Vatican, and that it is difficult to erase centuries-old wounds.
One word unsaid can sometimes be more damaging than thousands of words uttered. This is what happened two days ago during Pope Benedict XVI's speech at Yad Vashem. The thorough preparations for his visit to Israel, the complex traffic and security arrangements, and the millions of shekels that were earmarked for his hospitality evaporated as if they did not exist thanks to a speech that was missing one word - "sorry."
The pope's visit was a good opportunity to improve Israel's relations with the Vatican and for advancing inter-religious dialogue. His arrival strengthened the government's international standing on the eve of Benjamin Netanyahu's meeting with United States President Barack Obama.
From the church's standpoint, the pilgrimage to the Holy Land could have buttressed the Vatican's position in the diplomatic process while minimizing the damage caused by some of the pope's decisions: beatifying his predecessor, Pius XII, who is accused of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust, and reinstating a bishop who is on record as denying the Holocaust.
Yet the political weight of a visit by a pope who was in the Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany and a soldier in the Wermacht are reason enough to undertake as diligent a preparation as possible.
Perhaps in the eyes of his Catholic followers, pictures of the pope at Christian holy sites are the most moving of all. But from the standpoint of his Israeli hosts, the crux of the visit was the event at Yad Vashem. It should have been clear to the Vatican that every word spoken by, and every bead of sweat dripping down the face of the leader of the Catholic Church during his appearance at the site of the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority would be picked apart.
But Benedict is not as attuned an internationalist, capable of rallying the masses, as his immediate predecessor, John Paul II, was. His organizers should have made more of an effort in understanding the audience which the pontiff addressed. His important statements condemning anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial lost their potency because of his lukewarm remarks at Yad Vashem.
The pope's visit shows that there is no real dialogue between Israel and the Vatican, and that it is difficult to erase centuries-old wounds. It is clear that logistical preparations for such a visit are not sufficient, and that it is vital to conduct diplomatic dialogue over the content of the public aspects of the visit, so as to prevent mishaps and ensure a successful trip. On his trip to Africa, Benedict set off a storm by what he said. In Jerusalem he set off a wave of disappointment by what he did not.