June 13, 2014

Editorial

The pope’s ‘invocation for peace’

It was a significant achievement, even if the “invocation for peace” doesn’t bring peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And who could have brought it about better than Pope Francis?

While he was in the Holy Land, the pope had a sudden inspiration to invite President Shimon Peres of Israel and President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine to the Vatican to pray for peace. They both quickly accepted and, on June 8, each of the three men took turns praying for peace. Then, accompanied by the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, they exchanged the kiss of peace and planted an olive tree in the Vatican Gardens.

The Vatican has been careful to emphasize from the time the event was scheduled that it was a religious, rather than a political, occasion. Of course it was. But it was also an occasion for the sides to meet and talk about peace instead of the obstacles to that peace.

Perhaps it was providential that Pope Francis invited Peres and Abbas to this event because both have been striving for peace for decades, in contrast to others in Israel and Palestine who have not. The Holy Father might not have achieved the same thing with others.

Peres, in fact, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, for peace talks that produced the Oslo Accords. During his long career (he was first elected to the Knesset in 1959), he has done his part to find peace. His book The New Middle East, published in 1993, describes how prosperous the Middle East could be if peace could be achieved with the Arab states.

Abbas was among the first members of Fatah to call for talks with moderate Israelis, in 1977, to try to find peace. In 1993, he signed the peace accord with Israel on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Both Peres and Abbas have a good record when it comes to trying to find peace, although Peres’ record is considerably better. However, while viewing the “invocation for peace” at the Vatican, the question that seemed obvious was, “Are we dealing with the right men?”

Peres is 90 years old, the eldest head of state in the world. And he plans to step down as president of Israel yet this month. Besides, the role of president of Israel is ceremonial. The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is the political boss.

Abbas is 79 and probably won’t be able, or willing, to continue as president of Palestine much longer. He has been hampered from achieving peace with Israel because Fatah’s chief rival, Hamas, has controlled Gaza since 2007, and it’s clear that Hamas is not willing to recognize Israel. The United States has designated Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Only recently, in April, Abbas announced a reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas that created a new Palestine unity government. He said that the government would be under his command and policy, adding, “I recognize Israel, and it would recognize Israel. I reject violence and terrorism.”

Nevertheless, Israel’s Netanyahu quickly ruled out talks with the unity government. In fact, in retaliation for the formation of such a government, Israel approved the construction of nearly 1,500 new homes in Jewish settlements that the world considers to be in Palestinian territory. Uri Ariel, Israel’s housing minister, called such construction “a fitting Zionist response to the formation of a Palestinian terror government.”

This, then, was the status of relations between Israel and Palestine when Pope Francis invited the presidents to meet together, and with him, to pray for peace, each in his own way. We have to admit that we would be more optimistic about the future if the two men who met with the pope to pray had been Netanyahu and Rami Hamdallah, the prime ministers of Israel and Palestine.

Netanyahu is well known, but Hamdallah is the 55-year-old president of Al-Najah University of Nablus, a university with nearly 20,000 students. He enjoys great respect with the public as well as with Palestinian officials.

Let us join our prayers with those four men who prayed at the Vatican for peace in the world, and especially between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

—John F. Fink

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