When the Roman Catholic pope invites a secular Jew and a secular Muslim leader to come to Rome to pray with him for peace in the Middle East, you get an idea of just how hopeless the cause is. Especially considering that the Jew is a powerless president and the Muslim just made a pact with a terrorist group dedicated to Israel’s destruction, and both are lame ducks.
President Shimon Peres, 90, had three terms as prime minister but never a Palestinian partner who took peacemaking seriously, and he is now a figurehead president while Israel is ruled by a coalition equally hostile to any reasonable peace deal. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, 79, has been the PLO leader since 2005, and when faced with a very generous deal, took a hike. He didn’t bother to counter it. Only after a new government was in place that had rejected the prior offer did Abbas disingenuously say he was ready to resume talks where he’d left them. Too late, and he knew it; by then there was a new prime minister who opposed his predecessor’s proposals.
Peres is Israel’s leading dove and he has vouched for Abbas’ bonafides as a serious partner for peace, but he has no power and will be out of office this summer.
Abbas’ term technically ended five years ago, and now says he plans to step down after new elections, which may or may not be by the end of the year. Meanwhile, he just made a governing coalition deal with Hamas, a terrorist organization that opposes peace talks and almost daily repeats its goal of destroying the Jewish state.
That was all the excuse Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu needed to break off peace talks with Abbas’ Palestinian Authority that were already comatose following the Israeli leader’s decision to renege on a commitment to release Palestinian prisoners and in the wake of continuing settlement expansion – a certain deal-breaker, as Netanyahu well knew.
Netanyahu and Abbas are risk-averse adversaries who don’t trust each other and have kept personal contacts to a chilly minimum. Netanyahu was “furious” that his chief negotiator, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, met privately with Abbas in London two weeks ago, according to “sources close to the prime minister,” an Israeli media euphemism for Netanyahu’s aides. If she tries it again, she’ll get the boot, according to Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, a close Netanyahu ally.
In his visit to the Holy Land this weekend, Pope Francis, 77, invited Peres and Abbas to an “encounter of prayer” at the Vatican on June 6. Both enthusiastically accepted.
All sides have been pulling out all the stops to embrace the pontiff. He began his visit in Amman, Jordan, then helicoptered to Bethlehem, where he delighted his audience by referring to “the state of Palestine.” His hosts made sure he stopped for a photo op at a section of the Israeli security barrier tagged with the slogan “Bethlehem is like Warsaw Ghetto.” Murals welcoming the pope depicted Jesus as a Palestinian, including one of the infant swathed in a keffiyeh.
In the graffiti wars, Israeli vandals had spray painted “Jesus is a son of a bitch” on the wall surrounding a church in Beersheba.
The Vatican has long been more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, perhaps to protect its followers and properties in Muslim countries. Only after the 1993 Oslo Accords did the Vatican establish formal relations with the Jewish state.
Pope Francis, accompanied by his old friend from Argentina, Rabbi Avraham Skorka, is clearly intent on overcoming the Church’s long history of hostility toward Jews. Saying he was “ever mindful of the past,” he declared there is “no place for anti-Semitism” and referred to the Holocaust by the Hebrew term Shoah. Also accompanying the pope was a leader of the Buenos Aires Muslim community, Omar Aboud.
Pope Francis is no doubt sincere and well meaning in his desire for peace, but praying with Peres and Abbas will do no more to bring that about than the prayers of so many – especially the most fervently religious – on each side in the conflict that the other would disappear from the face of the earth.
Perhaps Abbas will try to convince the pope that Jesus was “a Palestinian messenger,” as he declared last Christmas, and that there are no valid Jewish claims to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Maybe he’ll try Yasser Arafat’s line that there never was a Jewish Temple on Mount Moriah, where Muslims many centuries later built their mosque. And then perhaps the pope will ask Abbas the same question Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak asked Arafat at Camp David in 2000: “If there was no Temple, where did Jesus drive the money changers from? The Mosque?”
If neither side in the conflict is ready to recognize the other’s legitimacy and abandon rigid ideology in favor of reconciliation, peace doesn’t have a prayer, in any faith.