- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2009

JERUSALEM — Pope Benedict XVI began an ultra-sensitive visit to Israel Monday by calling for a Palestinian state, and he later disappointed some Israelis by delivering a speech at the Holocaust memorial that its chairman claimed was a “missed opportunity” because it lacked a personal note of contrition.

In a speech delivered just minutes after he touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, the pontiff also attacked anti-Semitism as “totally unacceptable.”

But he may have reinforced the impression that his top priority during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land has been to convince Muslims of his friendship with the Islamic world in atonement for a speech interpreted as attacking Islam that he made in Germany in 2006.

“The hopes of countless men, women and children for a more secure and stable future depend on the outcome of negotiations for peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” the Roman Catholic pontiff said.

“I plead with all those responsible to explore every possible avenue in the search for a just resolution of the outstanding difficulties so that both people may live in peace in a homeland of their own within secure and internationally recognized borders,” he added.

Benedict’s support for a two-state solution is part of diplomatic orthodoxy, supported by the United States, the United Nations, European Union and until recently the Israeli government.

The Israeli government has declined to endorse a separate Palestinian state pending a policy review to be announced later this month.

Later Monday, Benedict said at Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial to an estimated 6 million Jews killed by Nazi Germany that their suffering must never be denied, a message that addressed Jewish anger over a Holocaust-denying bishop being rehabilitated by the pope earlier this year.

“The Catholic Church feels deep compassion for the victims remembered here,” he said. “As we stand here in silence, their cry still echoes in our hearts. It is a cry raised against every act of injustice and violence. It is a perpetual reproach against the spilling of innocent blood … . My dear friends, I am deeply grateful to God and to you for the opportunity to stand here in silence: a silence to remember, a silence to pray, a silence to hope.”

A short time after Benedict’s speech, the chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a Buchenwald concentration camp survivor, said he felt the pope’s visit to the memorial was “a missed opportunity” since, he said, the speech lacked a personal note of contrition.

Mr. Lau nevertheless said the pontiff’s visit has been altogether positive, adding that “the pope’s speech at Ben-Gurion Airport was superb.”

After his visit to the memorial, the pontiff found himself in the midst of a bizarre diplomatic incident when a Palestinian Muslim cleric, Sheik Tayssir Attamimi, disrupted an interreligious meeting of Christians, Jews and Muslims by lambasting Israel for its denial of a Palestinian homeland.

The tumultuous outburst by the irate cleric, the chief Islamic judge in the Palestinian Authority, was denounced by the chief Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, who said, “This intervention was a direct negation of what a dialogue should be.

“We hope that such an incident will not damage the mission of the pope aimed at promoting peace and also interreligious dialogue.”

Benedict’s journey through the Middle East’s diplomatic minefield has lacked the demonstrations of popular affection that marked Pope John Paul II’s visit to Israel in 2000.

Jerusalem Post editor David Horowitz recently called the German pope “a figure regarded with some wariness” in Israel. “He will likely be subjected to the merciless examination that his predecessor was spared,” he said.

On Tuesday, the general public in Jerusalem will get their first sight of the pontiff when he celebrates a Mass in the Kidron Valley beneath the walls of the Old City.

Just yards from the site thought to be the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was betrayed, a stage has been built for the service.

Also Tuesday, the pontiff will visit the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount and will meet the Jerusalem’s grand mufti, Mohammed Hussein.

• John Phillips can be reached at jphillips@washingtontimes.com.

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