Francis, Peres, Abbas: A pope, two presidents and a prayer for peace | World| Breaking news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 07.06.2014
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Francis, Peres, Abbas: A pope, two presidents and a prayer for peace

High-level diplomacy, it isn't. But a Vatican meeting between outgoing Israeli President Peres and Palestinian President Abbas sends a strong signal to the Middle East - and reaffirms Pope Francis' hopes for peace.

When Pope Francis opens the doors of the Vatican to his guests from the Middle East on Sunday (08.06.2014) evening, it will certainly be more about the symbolism of the event than real progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

However, it will be an unprecedented papal initiative that will certainly draw worldwide attention. Israel's President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will come together to pray and to talk with the Pope at his home on this Pentecostal Sunday.

The invitation for this unusual meeting was extended by the pope after his open-air mass in Bethlehem during his first visit as Pope to the Holy Land two weeks ago. "In this birthplace of the prince of peace, I wish to invite you, President Mahmoud Abbas, together with President Shimon Peres, to join me in prayer to God for the gift of peace," the pope said at the mass. "I offer my home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer."

Shimon Peres und Mahmoud Abbas

Peace through a prayer: Shimon (left) and Peres

On his return flight to Rome, the Pope elaborated his vision for the planned meeting.

"The two presidents and I will only meet to pray, and I believe that prayer is important, and doing this helps. Then they will go home. There will be a rabbi, a Muslim and me."

The prayer meeting was originally planned to take place during the pope's visit to the Holy Land, but afterwards it was announced that it had not taken place due to organizational reasons.

Crucial moment

The timing of the meeting comes at a critical moment, says Barak Ravid, diplomatic correspondent for the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz.

"Everybody here in Israel knows it is purely symbolic," he told DW. "However, the meeting in the Vatican became important not because the pope summoned Abu Mazen and Peres to the Vatican, but because of the very bad state of Israeli-Palestinian relations."

Palestinian politicians in a cabinet meeting

The first cabinet session of the newly-formed government on Tuesday (03.06.2014)

Ever since the Pope's invitation, Israeli media have been speculating as to whether President Peres would get the green light from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanjahu to attend the meeting. According to some commentators, the invitation was "hard to swallow" for Netanjahu.

Israel's premier broke off peace talks with the Palestinians last month after Palestinian President Abbas signed a reconciliation deal with one of Israel's bitter enemies, the Hamas movement, which has governed the Gaza Strip since the violent takeover in 2007.

On Monday, the Palestinian president swore in a new interim government as part of the recent deal. While Europe and the US welcomed the development, Israel rejected the government, saying it is backed by Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization.

A meeting at the highest level between the Palestinian and the Israeli presidents does not fit within the new policy of Prime Minister Netanyahu's government of "no contact, no negotiations."

But Israel will elect a new president next Tuesday, and the 90 year old Shimon Peres will not be running again. President Peres' prayer with the pope and Palestinian President Abbas, then, will be one of the last major events of his long standing presidency before those elections.

Low expectations

On the streets in Jerusalem, the Vatican meeting is not a major topic. "I assume it will be a cordial meeting, and both sides will talk about important issues, but that will be it," says passerby Marc Elcand in West Jerusalem.

Benjamin Netenyahu speaks to another Israeli politician

Netanyahu warned in parliament against any "rush to recognize" the new Palestinian government

A young religious soldier who is opposed to the meeting said, "Abu Mazen [Abbas] represents a system that hates Israel. We have no interest in being there."

In the West Bank city of Ramallah, a 45-minute drive from Jerusalem with an Israeli checkpoint in between, expectations are not high, either. Most are concerned with how the new Palestinian government will operate and with uncertainties about reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas in practice.

"I am not sure what Peres can actually do," says Bassem, a passerby in the center of Ramallah. "It's Netanjahu, with his right-wing government, who makes the decisions. Nothing will come out of it."

'Count on us'

Others, however, see reason for optimism in Pope Francis' proposal.

"The pope is a man of religion and peace. He's a role model for the Christian and Muslim world," says Khitam Deek. "Especially now, with Israel imposing new economic sanctions on us because of our new government, it's good to have support from the pope".

His visit in late May to Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus and in today's West Bank, was seen as a boost for many Palestinians. Pope Francis also stepped out of his "Papa-Mobile" for a surprise stop at the separation wall in Bethlehem, where he prayed for several minutes in silence.

Papst Franziskus besucht Palästinenser 25.05.2014 Manger Square

Thousands turned out for the pope's visit to Palestine

The meeting in Rome will be a continuation of the Pope's vision of dialogue and engagement, Palestinian officials say. "Setting aside all symbolism, the meeting in Rome will be a reaffirmation of the role of the Holy See here. They are saying, 'Count on us, we are willing to help as much as we can in order to achieve peace in a region that the Holy See has many interests in,'" says PLO Spokesperson Xavier Abu Eid.

At the same time, the meeting will reaffirm bilateral relations between Palestinians and the Vatican, another important element in the quest for Palestinian statehood.

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