Putting aside for the moment our tendency as Israelis toward cynicism, there were a number of positive elements to the prayer summit Pope Francis organized at the Vatican on Sunday between President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
From a religious perspective, the meeting was unprecedented.
Never before have Palestinian and Israeli statesmen met for the sake of peace at the Vatican under the tutelage of the pontiff.
Until recently, an event such as this would have been impossible to imagine due to deep religious differences, not just between Muslims and Jews, but between Jews and Catholics.
It was just four decades ago, as part of the reforms instituted by the Second Vatican Council, that the Catholic Church revoked its claim of deicide against the Jews and acknowledged that God had not forsaken them. For many years the State of Israel had presented a theological problem for the Catholic Church: How could the Jewish people – destined, according to it, to wander homeless among the nations in punishment for denying the Christian messiah – return to the Land of Israel and once again attain political sovereignty? Much has changed since Paul VI’s 1964 visit to Israel during which he traveled only to Christian religious sites, never mentioned Israel by name in public and refused to address the Israeli president, Zalman Shazar, by his title.
In 1993, John Paul II established diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel for the first time. And his visit to Israel in 2000 proved to be a groundbreaking change in relations between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church.
Ever since, a visit to Israel has become de rigueur for popes. Benedict XVI was here in 2009 and Francis just last month.
The invitation of Israel’s president to the Vatican alongside the president of the Palestinian Authority is yet another sign of the changing relations between the Catholic Church and the State of Israel.
On another level, the meeting conveyed a symbolic message of peace.
Pope Francis urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to respond to their peoples’ yearning for peace.
“Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare.
It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict: yes to dialogue and no to violence; yes to negotiations and no to hostilities,” the pope said. “All of this takes courage, it takes strength and tenacity.”
Both Peres and Abbas called for an end to Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
“We want peace for us and for our neighbors,” Abbas said.
“We must put an end to the cries, to the violence, to the conflict,” Peres said.
“Peace does not come easy,” the Israeli president added. “It calls for sacrifice and compromise. Without peace, we are not complete. We have yet to achieve this mission of humanity. Even when peace seems distant, we must pursue it to bring it closer.”
Francis, in contrast to his immediate predecessor, has a well developed intuition for public opinion. He rightly understood that the members of his church would instinctively be responsive to a meeting of peace at the Vatican between Israelis and Palestinians.
Admittedly, there are no real political ramifications to the meeting. It is one of symbols, not substance. In a sense that is precisely what made the event possible. Because the invocation ceremony at the Vatican was purely symbolic, Peres’s participation was not interpreted as a recognition of the new Palestinian unity government, which includes representatives of Hamas, a terrorist organization committed to the violent destruction of the State of Israel.
The message of peace that came out of Rome on Sunday was remarkably in line with Peres’s guiding principle. Indeed, since the Oslo Accords, Peres’s name has become almost synonymous with the peace process. And Francis seems to have understood this. Peres undoubtedly wanted Francis’s visit to Israel to take place before he left office, and Francis grasped Peres’s symbolic importance and had an interest in taking advantage of this symbolism before Peres finished his term next month.
That the last significant event attended by Peres in his seven-year stint as president was a ceremony celebrating peace was a fitting finale for a man who has worked hard to keep alive the hope of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.