The Pope's Peace Pleas Won't Move Syria, Israel

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Pope John Paul II prays at the Church of St. Paul on the Wall in Damascus

Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed, and beleaguered, as Pope John Paul II has discovered on his tour of Syria. The pontiff found himself at the center of a familiar Middle Eastern political firestorm Monday, as his Syrian hosts took him to the ruins of Kuneitra, a town bordering the Golan Heights that was destroyed by Israeli forces in 1974 and has been maintained as a ghost town ever since. And while the pope prayed for peace and for the victims of the latest Israeli-Palestinian violence, Israelis expressed outrage at remarks by Syria's President Bashar Assad in welcoming the pontiff over the weekend, calling for solidarity against Israelis as "the betrayers of Jesus."

Israeli officials urged the pontiff to distance himself from Assad's comments, but John Paul II not surprisingly steered clear of the controversy during his visit to the border zone Monday. After all, his mission in Syria is promoting rapprochement between Islam and the Catholic Church, just as he'd tried to promote reconciliation between Catholics and Jews during last year's visit to Israel. But in Syria he may have bumped into the reality that it's difficult to make friends with both groups while avoiding being drawn into the enmity that rages between them. Indeed, had he not been the first pope to enter a synagogue and go miles further than any of his predecessors to signal support and affection for Jews, the political fallout of what transpired on Sunday when he became the first pope to enter a mosque may have been disastrous for the peacemaking pilgrim.

The hostility between the Syrians and the Israelis, of course, is more terrestrial than spiritual: Possession of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in their 1967 war remains the key to an elusive peace deal between the two countries that remain, technically, at war. While both Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak — and even Benjamin Netanyahu, in secret, according to reports — had negotiated with Syria over returning the territory, they were unable to resolve disputes over just where the international border began and ended and over the security guarantees required by Israel. The pope's visit to the Golan Heights area may have been designed to dramatize his plea for peace, but nobody's expecting any movement on that front any time soon. Whereas his predecessors were prepared to consider trading the Heights for a peace agreement and elaborate security guarantees, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insists that holding onto the territory remains a strategic imperative for Israel — and heíll take Assadís "Christ-killer" rhetoric as further evidence of Syria's implacable hostility. And if he can't have the Heights back, Assad isn't much interested in peace, either.

Indeed, the current state of "dialogue" between Israel and Syria may be revealed in the contents of a fishing boat intercepted near Haifa en route from Lebanon to Gaza on Monday. Israeli authorities said the vessel contained rocket-propelled grenades and Katyusha rockets, the artillery-of-choice of Hezbollah. The Iran-backed Lebanese militia which has periodically acted as a Syrian proxy has formed Palestinian cells in Gaza, which have been behind the mortar attacks on Israeli settlements in that territory. If the rockets intercepted by the Israelis were indeed sent by Hezbollah — which may provoke a sharp Israeli response directed at Syrian targets in Lebanon — that may simply add to the reasons why Pope John Paul II's pleas for Israeli-Syria peace will fall on deaf ears.