Smiles for the Camera

Photo-ops are generally the only things to be achieved at meetings concerning the Middle East; many smiling faces with few tangible results. Handshakes, embraces, smiles — all masking the actual discomfort felt in one leader’s proximity to another. Just think of all the smiling photos of Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with U.S. President Barack Obama. As Israeli Labor Party chief and opposition leader Isaac Herzog candidly, though inappropriately, pointed out last week, “Netanyahu loathes Obama.” Maybe so, but it doesn’t stop the flashing of smiles and the chummy firm handshakes with the obligatory statements of “mutual and unshakeable commitments.”

The only Middle-East-related photo I have ever seen that reveals honest emotion is the iconic photo of former Prime Minister Yitchak Rabin, shaking the hand of his once and future adversary, PLO terrorist cum statesman, Yasir Arafat in the moment after the Oslo accord was signed on the White House lawn in 1993. To Rabin’s enduring credit, he shook hands reluctantly with Arafat, his face manifesting a discomfort revealing his visceral revulsion at touching this unrepentant slaughterer of Jews.

Two weeks ago, Pope Francis’ whirlwind pilgrimage to the Holy Land provided countless opportunities to photograph the Pontiff breaking down metaphoric walls and praying at stone walls — the Holy Kotel and in a moment wrought with controversy, at a point on the separation wall, comparing the barrier to the Warsaw ghetto.

Throughout his visit, the Pope displayed a robust and muscular image as he drove through the region without the usual bullet-proof protection surrounding all Popes since the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in May of 1981. Confidently, he invited Israel’s ceremonial head of state, Shimon Peres and the Palestinian Authority’s soon to be ceremonial head of state (Hamas will soon control the new Palestinian unity government and be the real power), Mahmoud Abbas to come to the Vatican for a session of prayer to benefit the bedeviled Holy Land.

It is not surprising that this idea was initiated by the recently invested Pope as both Peres and Abbas are avowedly secular. The Vatican, the world’s smallest independent state in both area and population, had its population practically doubled with the swarm of journalists and photographers and the hordes of people in the entourages of both Peres and Abbas, in what may be the last great stage for the aging leaders.

Nothing can lead to the smiling and fraternal interaction of world leaders than photographers and the Vatican summit was no exception. Each of the troika of leaders invoked G-d with words crying for peace and justice and courage.

“Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare,” Pope Francis said. “Instill in our hearts the courage to take concrete steps to achieve peace,” he implored.

Israeli President Peres said: “It is within our power to bring peace to our children. This is our duty, the holy mission of parents.”

“O L-rd, bring comprehensive and just peace to our country and region so that our people and the peoples of the Middle East and the whole world would enjoy the fruit of peace, stability and coexistence,” Mr. Abbas said.

Music played; an olive tree was planted; smiles and handshakes were shared; photo-ops aplenty preserved for posterity. The 90-minute event was likened to “an outdoor summer wedding” with smiles and hugs aplenty. In effect it was a mixed-marriage between intractable foes officiated by a clergy member of neither’s faith. Every guest in attendance knew the joy of this “arranged marriage” between Peres and Abbas would be like milk left out in the Mediterranean sun curdling quickly to cheese, the smiles souring as soon as the faces were out of camera range.

So what did the platitudes accomplish? What was going on back at home in Israel “as the band played on”?

Even as the prayer powwow was in progress, Hamas, the junior party in the new Palestinian coalition sent its calling card, firing a rocket from the Gaza Strip into Ashkelon in southern Israel on Sunday night. Though no injuries or damage were reported, it was a clear message from Hamas that even though suit and tie technocrats fronted the new government, they remained the true muscle. I wonder if Obama, the European Union or any country supporting this Palestinian “wolf-in-sheep’s clothes” government will get Hamass’ message.

In Israel on Sunday, two prominent ministers in the Netanyahu’s cabinet rocketed their own verbal missiles into Israel. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni claimed that unilateral annexation was “tantamount to throwing dust in everyone’s eyes. I will not let it happen in my Israel,” she pontificated. Finance Minister Yair Lapid threw his own bomb of vitriol, threatening Netanyahu that if the government attempted to unilaterally annex any part of Yehudah or Shomron, he would pull his Yesh Atid faction and all its 19 mandates, costing Netanyahu his governing majority. “If there is an attempt to annex even one settlement unilaterally, Yesh Atid won’t just pull out of the coalition, it will topple it,” he warned. With coalition partners like these, who needs an opposition? “Et tu, Brute?”

Praying for peace is a noble thought but in the mixed “minyan” convened at the Vatican it is neither authentically Jewish nor effective. Each of the leaders missed an opportunity to act and not merely intone words. Despite all the smiles and fuzzy sentiments exchanged at the Vatican, Abbas did not erase the words in the Palestinian Authority or Hamas charter calling for the elimination of Israel; nor did he say or write the simple sentence, “Israel is the Jewish State.” No amount of smiles or olive trees planted at the Vatican is as valuable as Jewish leadership that is willing to lead like Jews; Peres certainly is not. And as for the Pope, considering that the day before on Shabbat we read Parashat Behaalot’cha which begins with Aaron HaKohen lighting the Menorah, it would have been perfect timing for the Pontiff to return the Menorah stolen from the Beit Hamikdash (presumed to be in the Vatican collection) as an act of good will to the Jewish people and teshuvah for the sins of the Vatican. Alas, no such gesture, just platitudes, photo-ops and smiles and a rocket from Gaza.


Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at