Pulled into Nazareth...

LIFEembedDrawImage(87218930); A few things about Pope Benedict's extended viist to the Holy Land were predictable. One, every word the pontiff said would be parsed for meaning like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Two, every place he went would become highly symbolic. Three, some Palestinians and Israelis would be offended when the Pope either addressed or seemed to be slighting the concerns of the other party. And lastly, there would be little journalistic consensus, at least in the immediate aftermath, about the impact of either his words or his actions on the tinderbox called the Middle East.

Of the recent accounts I've read, I thought that Rachel Donadio and New York Times colleague Sharon Otterman did a nice job of providing both emotional immediacy and balance when describing the Pope's visit to Bethlehem, one stop on his itinerary.

They don't shy away letting the theatrical power of Benedict's words beside the Israeli wall and checkpoint speak for themselves. They also acknowledge that the so-called "two-state solution" is Vatican policy and widely shared among Western governments -- in other words, these words have punch because of their setting, not because they signal a chance in policy.

Just yards from the barrier separating Israelis and Palestinians, Pope Benedict XVI expressed solidarity on Wednesday with "all the homeless Palestinians who long to be able to return to their birthplace, or live permanently in a homeland of their own."

It was not the first time the pope had endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state, but the location, with the concrete-and-barbed-wire barrier and a checkpoint towering in the background, was deliberately chosen to strengthen his case. Benedict called the structure, which is loathed by Palestinians but which Israel says is key to its security, "a stark reminder of the stalemate that relations between Israelis and Palestinians seem to have reached."

"In a world where more and more borders are being opened up -- to trade, to travel, to movement of peoples, to cultural exchanges -- it is tragic to see walls still being erected," Benedict said. "How we long to see the fruits of the much more difficult task of building peace!"

Donadio and Otterman write that while the Pope has expressed empathy for Palestinian and Israeli victims, and he has been criticized by both Palestinians and Israelis, more negative comments have come from Israeli Jews. All in all, it seems to me that they did a decent job of capturing one vignette of a visit that was going to be highly contentious under most conditions.

Looking for another intepretation? Sometimes you wonder if reporters were covering the same events. Here's the much sharper lede from an article by foreign correspondent Howard Schneider in the Washington Post:

Pope Benedict XVI criticized Israel's construction of a security barrier through the West Bank and urged a loosening of restrictions on the Gaza Strip on Wednesday, a day of speeches and symbolic appearances that amounted to a running critique of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.

From a morning address alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to a late-afternoon visit to a refugee camp, the pontiff used a full day in the occupied West Bank to highlight some of the main issues on the Palestinian agenda.

Not only are they a "running critique" but Schneider also describes the Pope's comments as "pointed," as "coming at a sensitive time" and as focused on how Palestinians are affected by Israeli security measures. Meanwhile, Richard Boudreaux of the Los Angeles Times noted that Palestinian listeners didn't seem to be overly enthusiastic about Benedict's speech:

Benedict's carefully parsed lament over the Israeli barrier drew no applause at the gathering in the refugee camp. He read his remarks in monotone, without looking up from his text or gesturing toward the concrete 100 feet behind him. Some listeners said they had tuned out by then.

Others, attentive to the Arabic translation, said they were disappointed he had not branded it illegal, as the International Court of Justice has done.

But many in Bethlehem welcomed his visit as an affirmation of the Palestinian cause.

"Carefully parsed" and "monotonal" -- why the guy sounds almost boring! Boudreaux also asserts that on many elements of the conflict, the Pope has aimed to be " balanced, ambiguous, or noncommital."

So...was Benedict striving for the bland center?Was he tilting pro-Palestinian? Was he just reiterating Vatican policy? It's clear that journalists bring their own persepctives to this story. But it's just as obvious that when you throw all these combustible ingredients into a pot, a gentle simmer is not an option. Expect this pot to keep boiling for a long time.

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