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Cynics might regard Pope Francis’ prayer summit, which will bring Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican today, as a glorified photo opportunity. And plenty of pictures will be taken. But for five reasons -- these leaders’ histories, their missions, their frustrations, their mutual respect, and the date -- the meeting could help resuscitate the Middle East peace process.
BAND OF THREE
Although Francis might get credit for the meeting, it is the nearly 91-year-old Peres who has driven things. For him, this is an opportunity to pursue peace over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s head and engage Abbas in neutral space. And he has been trying to do so for a long time: Peres met with Francis in the Vatican in April last year, just six weeks after the new pontiff was installed, and personally invited him to Israel. After that, Peres went on to Assisi, the Italian city dedicated to St. Francis, where he received the city’s first Medal of Honor for Peace.
For Abbas, too, this meeting will be propitious. Although there are many reasons that the most recent round of peace talks collapsed, Netanyahu and his ruling coalition government’s fundamental distrust of the Palestinian president has not helped. Last summer, for example, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman wrote to the United Nations secretary-general, the U.S. secretary of state, the Russian foreign minister, and the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs to ask them to help force elections in Palestine to oust Abbas. “Anyone coming after Abbas will be better for Israel,” Lieberman wrote, “Abbas is not a peace partner.”
But Abbas has a major defender in Peres, whose approval rating in Israel is over 80 percent. “I have known [Abbas] for 30 years,” Peres told an assembly of ambassadors to Israel in December 2012. Peres went on to describe Abbas as the only Arab leader “who stood up and said publicly that he was in favor of peace and against terrorism.” And last month, Peres commented to Israel’s Channel 2 that, three years ago, he and Abbas had secretly met in Jordan four times. He said that they reached an agreement that covered “nearly all points of dispute,” but that, as the two men were getting ready for their final meeting, “Netanyahu stopped it.”
Peres and Abbas are coming to the Vatican as long-time partners. They both have the freedom to operate because of their age, time in public service, and status as “founding fathers” for their people. In other words, neither man has anything to prove. Yet each is invariably captured by local politics when he is in his respective presidential headquarters. The meeting in the Vatican thus gives Abbas and Peres some breathing room, as does Francis’ presence. He has built his papacy on straightforwardness, common sense, respect for all, and humility. Together, they can attract global attention to the stalemate in a politically neutral and moral way.
Beyond their personal histories, the three leaders’ missions are also aligned. Each believes that his respective constituents’ best interests will be served if Israel and Palestine arrive at a two-state solution based on internationally recognized borders and security assurances.
For its part, the Vatican considers the standoff in the Middle East to be a source of Muslim-Christian conflict around the world. If Israelis and Palestinians could make peace, the Catholic Church reasons, there would be less pressure on Christian minority communities and they could practice their faith with more freedom. To that end, in 2000, representatives for the Palestinians and Catholics agreed that Jerusalem should be guaranteed a special international status to safeguard its “identity and sacred character” and to assure freedom of access to its holy places. It was based on the original plan for the partition of Palestinian territories that the United Nations approved in 1947.
Peres has also spoken highly of the peace process and the two-state solution. Like Francis, he has mostly focused on human rights and prosperity. In his memoir, Battling for Peace, for example, Peres concludes, “as for our region, the Middle East, Israel’s role is to contribute to the region’s great and sustained revival. It will be a Middle East without wars…in which people, goods, and services, can move freely from place to place without the need for custom clearance and police licenses. A Middle East in which every believer will be free to pray in his own language…in which nations strive for economic equality, but encourage cultural pluralism.” And in a compelling February 2014 interview with Buzzfeed, Peres describes his life’s mission as “to make peace.”
Likewise, Abbas’ mission is to establish a functional Palestinian state within internationally recognized borders, not the new border he sees Israel constructing. He recently warned Israel that if Israel refuses to honestly negotiate the terms of statehood for Palestine, he might liquidate the Palestinian Authority so that Israel can take over, including all its people and problems. To date, Abbas has also opposed the boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
For Francis, Peres, and Abbas, then, a two-state agreement between Israel and Palestine is a goal worth coming together for.
If the three leaders’ goals align, so does their frustration about the gap between the truth on the ground and the innumerable proposals for coexistence on paper.
Frustration is the norm for people living in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank as a result of what Israelis call a security fence and Palestinians call a tool of apartheid. For over ten years, the Palestinian Authority and the Catholic Church have complained bitterly about the wall and its negative impact on local people, Palestinian Arabs and Christians.
During a 2003 press conference at the White House, Abbas noted that, “If the settlement activities in Palestinian land and construction of the so-called ‘separation wall’ on confiscated Palestinian land continue, we might soon find ourselves at a situation where the foundation of peace, a free Palestine state, living side-by-side in peace and security in Israel is a factual impossibility.” The same year, Pope John Paul II publicly criticized the barrier during a Sunday meditation before thousands of people. “The Holy Land does not need walls, but bridges!” he said. “Without reconciliation of souls, there can be no peace.”
The wall and related settlement issues have also caused more prosaic troubles. In a recent case on the West Bank, a group of Selecian Sisters joined a lawsuit to stop the construction of a portion of the wall near Beit Jala that would separate the convent from its school it runs for Palestinian children and from the neighboring Cremisan monastery (an historical wine-making order). It would also separate 58 Christian families from land they cultivated in the Cremisan Valley. The case went to the Israel Supreme Court, which, in February, ordered the government to explain the wall’s route and why it could not be altered. A hearing is set for July 30.
The Church has a running tally of other grievances as well: After more than 20 years, a 1983 agreement concerning issues such as taxes on church properties and charitable groups remains un-enacted; Arab-speaking Catholic priests are often not allowed re-entry visas to Israel, even though they are supposed to administer Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan; and residency permits for religious workers often go un-renewed, thus turning church workers into criminals.
On the other side, Peres rarely criticizes Netanyahu or his government by name, although he does express frustration. At a state dinner in Norway last month, he lamented, “There had been many attempts to break the ice between us and the Palestinians. All failed.” He continued by saying that Israel “was not born to rule over other people.” No wonder he is seeking the quiet of Francis’ personal chapel.
The idea that these three men might jumpstart peace may seem farfetched, but each has taken unpopular positions before, proving his independence and ability to negotiate for the common good.
For example, Francis shocked many Catholics when, on a plane back from a tour of the Holy Lands last month, he said that Pope Pius XII would not be canonized because he did not perform enough miracles. That was an unconvincing reason because only last year, Francis was reportedly on track to canonize Pius, and he has waived the miracle requirement for others, including Pope John XXIII.
Although some Catholics have lobbied the Vatican to canonize Pius, even turning the cause into a moneymaking enterprise, Pius is a controversial figure. In the end, knowing that the Jewish community argues that the pope could have done more to save Jewish communities and should have, at least, publicly confronted Nazi Germany about the extermination camps, Francis chose to eliminate the controversy in one stroke.
Just as controversially, Peres dared to call the West Bank settlements a threat to peace in July 2012, just one day after a government report claimed that Israel has an international right to build them. His announcement sparked protests inside of Israel.
Abbas, too, inspired anger when, in November 2012, he said he did not expect to return to his childhood village of Safed, in northern Israel, because it is now Israeli territory, although he hopes to visit. The statement seemed to be a concession that the Palestinian “right to return” to pre-1948 homes is not a pragmatic demand.
Also in their favor is the date of this weekend’s meeting. June 8, is on or near a holy day for all three religions: It falls on Pentecost Sunday for Christians, the 50th day after Easter, when the Holy Spirit descended and gave Jesus’ apostles the ability to speak and understand all other languages. It is also just three days after Shavuot is celebrated, which commemorates the day on which God gave the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It also happens to be the anniversary of the day, in 682, when Muhammad died in Medina at age 62 or 63, with the words, “Rather God on High and paradise.” Today, some Muslims mark the day by reading the Koran or through prayer.
Religious people accept that unexpected, transformative, and even miraculous things can occur at any time. And each faith is premised on welcome surprises -- exactly what is needed to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But the date -- and the characters of these three leaders -- can’t hurt. After decades of failed effort, it seems almost logical for Christians, Jews, and Muslims to seek out wisdom through prayer on such an auspicious day.