A more than slightly surprising piece of news received only perfunctory coverage in the American press late last month This was the news that Pope John Paul II had sent a pair of peace envoys to the Middle East: Cardinal Pio Laghi, a veteran diplomat who was once papal nuncio to the United States, and Monsignor Giovanni d'Aniello of the Vatican Secretariat of State.

One might have thought that just now wouldn't be the time for the pope to offer his services as a mediator between the Jews and the Arabs of Israel/Palestine. Less than a month earlier, the pope had offended a good many Israelis-not least the editors of the Jerusalem Post--by failing to repudiate and denounce an anti-Semitic tirade made during his historic visit to Syria, by the country's President Bashar al-Assad.

The church's past record of anti-Semitism is beyond dispute (see James Carroll's recent "Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews"), but no apology was forthcoming for the papal silence in Syria. John Paul II has repudiated anti-Semitism on other occasions, and Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls would go no further than to say that "The Holy See's position against anti-Semitism is well known and has been stated thousands of times."

As the first Roman pontiff to visit Damascus in more than 1,500 years, John Paul sat in silence while Assad attacked the Jews of the world as people who "try to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality with which they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the prophet Muhammad." When Assad finished, the pope simply read his prepared speech, a plea for peace.

A Jerusalem Post editorial insisted that the pope's silence might all too easily be taken as assent, given the church's past anti-Semitism: "It therefore behooves the pope to make a public apology to the Jewish people and to refute the rubbish contained in Assad's speech."

Even before his moment of silence in Syria, the pope's credibility in the role of mediator was not high. The Israelis, as Jews, still associate the pope with the Holocaust, while the Palestinians, as Muslims, associate him with the Crusades. Muslim Israelis might take a more open or nuanced view, as may Christian Palestinians. But they are (a few talented individuals aside) marginal to the negotiations that somehow must take place.

In all likelihood, the pope's visit to Syria has simply reinforced stereotypes on both sides. His Syrian hosts will have been slightly miffed at his refusal to offer even a coded endorsement of Assad or a coded tilt toward the Palestinians, but his silence has clearly eroded what little credibility he or any pope may have in Israel.

But the fact that he intended to try casts the pope's silence in Damascus in an interesting new light. Until President Clinton left office, the role of mediator belonged to the United States. Once a new intifada erupted, and a memo defaming the Clinton administration's efforts was leaked, suspicions began to grow that the United States' hour was up. Israel's use of American F-16s to bombard Palestinians hardened those suspicions into near-certainty.

But if not the Americans, then who? Handicaps attend every prospective mediator. The fact is, the longer one considers it, the less outlandish the Vatican becomes. Any port in a storm, as the saying goes; the Vatican may be a poor port, but the Israelis and Palestinians are caught in a fearsome storm. So, at least, the matter might look from a palace in Rome.

The pope may be frail, but he's not clueless. The Vatican, remember, moves at a notoriously deliberate pace: If Cardinal Laghi and Monsignor d'Aniello are en route to Jerusalem barely three weeks after the pope's trip to Syria, it is fair to assume their trip was planned long before the pontiff's. By the same token, the frail pope likely made his medically ill-advised trip to build goodwill on the Arab side. A denunciation of Bashar al-Assad's hateful rhetoric, however well deserved, would have been fatal to that effort, and so the pope kept silent.

This is, after all, how the Vatican mind works. I submit that the same process was behind Pius XII's notorious silence about Nazi persecution of the Jews. In her most recent book, "Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy," Susan Zuccotti convincingly demonstrates that the many Italian Jews who were hidden in Catholic homes, convents, monasteries, and schools during the Nazi occupation of Italy did not owe their lives to any secret orders from the pope. The pope did not object to these essentially freelance rescue efforts. Why, she asks, did he not speak out in favor of them? Why not commend comparable behavior to German Catholics years earlier?

Zuccotti answers that the pope was preserving his neutrality against the day when he might be called on to serve as peace mediator. She persuasively reconstructs the Vatican's hope, vain as it proved to be, that through its mediation, Germany could be led to surrender preemptively to the western powers. If that had happened, then the Russian march into Europe might have been called off as no longer militarily necessary, and the Iron Curtain-which, for all his faults, Pius XII seems to have foreseen-might never have divided Europe.

A vain hope indeed, an utterly delusionary hope. Because the pope sacrificed everything to it, lives were lost that might have been saved. In retrospect, silence seems far too high a price to pay for the preservation of a neutrality that, in the end, accomplished nothing.

But if we now see John Paul II, whose political impact on the 20th century dwarfs that of Pius XII, once again keeping silence, once again preserving diplomatic neutrality, we may at least have a clue as to what he hopes to accomplish.

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