There are a lot of lovely, sloping hills around the Mount of Beatitudes, an idyllic site that descends to the shore of the Sea of Galilee. The spot is so unspoiled that it is easy to squint your eyes, rid the scene of its few paved roads and other modern encroachments, and imagine Jesus preaching his Sermon on the Mount on these same gentle green hills, as he is said to have done 2,000 years ago.
When I squinted, however, I saw only George W. Bush, holding the hands of two giggling nuns. Visiting the Church of the Beatitudes here, built on or near the hill where Christ delivered his most noted sermon, Bush was presented with a crystal icon that bore an inscription from it: "Blessed are those who are peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God." The words apparently referred to the president's efforts to forge a historic peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, who must figure out a way to share this tortured but beautiful land.
Over two days the president was actually retracing, mile by mile, the course of his Savior's life (though he was doing it by Marine helicopter, not mule). Asked by a reporter during his tour of Galilee today what it was like to be "walking literally in the footsteps of Jesus," the president replied, "It's an amazing experience." His visit, under a bright blue sky, came a day after his trip to Bethlehem, where Bush saw the site of Jesus' birth. A few miles away from the Mount of Beatitudes, Bush also toured Capernaum, the hamlet where the young rabbi Jesus is said to have preached in a local synagogue and hung out with his disciples at Simon Peter's house. Bush listened, stiff-armed and gray-suited, as a friar read to him passages from the New Testament that described Christ's miracles there.
The president may need something close to one of those miracles now. That is, if he is ever to truly walk in Jesus' steps (Bush once called Christ his favorite philosopher), rid himself of his rep as warmonger and instead join the ranks of the peacemakers. The famous lines from the Sermon on the Mount--"blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth"--have often seemed as out of place in his administration as the president himself did today at Capernaum. Far from blessing the meek, the administration has spent far more time battering and bashing them. Think of Dick Cheney and his minions manhandling CIA analysts over Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld dissing the Europeans over their early offers of help in Afghanistan and the vice president's chief counsel, David Addington, riding roughshod over soft-spoken State Department lawyers who dared demur that there might be actual legal restraints on interrogations.
But it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Bush's foreign policy today betrays a little ... meekness. The president badly wants a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, but he's hesitant about intervening in their talks. Whereas the administration asserted, on scant evidence, that Iran had a nuclear weapons program back in 2005, it's now diffidently giving Tehran the benefit of the doubt--even though the CIA says it has hard evidence the Iranians had such a program. When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked Bush this week to explain this new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which concluded with "high confidence" that Iran halted its "nuclear weapons program" in 2003, Bush replied that he had no control over the U.S. intelligence community wrote, a senior administration official told me. And the administration is constantly finding excuses these days for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, whom Bush belittled as a "pygmy" in the first term but who is being given more and more time to divulge his nuclear-arms program under a negotiated deal.
Nothing wrong with meekness, of course, as long as it's not overdone (the same goes for confidence). Even Jesus said at one point that he came "not to bring peace but a sword," at least in dealing with the old establishment of belief. And Bush, paradoxically enough, may have to reclaim a bit of his old unilateralist bluster if he is going to break through the wall between Israelis and Palestinians and leave a legacy as peacemaker. Call it another lesson from the Holy Land.