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 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.”
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