Israel’s government is boycotting its Palestinian counterpart with relations to a new low, and when their two presidents join Pope Francis in a Vatican prayer for peace on Sunday politics are likely to be absent.
Israeli President Shimon Peres and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmud Abbas have been acquaintances for years and held peace talks together, and have their separate reasons for honouring the pope’s desire to keep the weekend event as free of controversy as possible. “This prayer meeting will not be for mediation or to find solutions. We are just meeting up to pray. Then everyone goes home,” Francis said after issuing the invitations during a pilgrimage to the Middle East last month. Under Israel’s political system, Peres’s role as president is largely ceremonial. Real power lies with the much more hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu did allow Peres to open a secret back channel of peace negotiations with Abbas in 2011. The two men held four rounds of talks in which Peres has said they finalised a draft agreement that the rightwing premier then rejected. A new, US-led, peace push launched last July collapsed amid acrimony earlier this year to the dismay of Peres, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his part in launching the process decades ago. But all the president, now 90 and due to step down at the end of July, has been able to do is voice hope that talks may one day resume.
In the Vatican Gardens on Sunday, he, Abbas and Francis will “issue a joint call for peace to people across the world,” his office said. “President Peres will place particular emphasis on the importance of inter-religious dialogue,” it added. The Palestinians too are keen that the joint prayers go ahead, despite Netanyahu’s decision to boycott a new unity government sworn in by Abbas on Monday with the support of Israel’s Islamist foe Hamas. “We are committed to the pope’s request. Nothing new has happened that would change the commitment,” said foreign minister Riyad al-Malki.
While some Palestinians expressed dissatisfaction that Francis did not explicitly condemn Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank during last month’s pilgrimage, Abbas welcomed the pope’s “historic” visit. And a silent prayer that Francis held at Israel’s West Bank separation barrier in Bethlehem was widely seen as a publicity coup for the Palestinians. “The pope saw the occupation with his eyes, he saw the wall in Palestine,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP. That perception was shared in Israel to the anger of the nationalist right.
Jerusalem Post commentator Caroline Glick wrote of an “unfriendly” visit and accused Francis of “leading the Catholic Church in a distressingly anti-Jewish direction.” “Alas, the Golden Age of Catholic-Jewish relations seems to have come to an end during Francis’s visit to the Promised Land”, she wrote. Peres has been at pains to assuage Jewish religious sensibilities about the joint prayers he will hold at the Vatican. “The event will take place in a location in the garden without religious symbols and which is not a place of prayer to ensure that it would be in accordance with Jewish tradition,” his office said. Ahead of the visit, Peres spoke with Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who blessed him for his work towards peace and wished him luck, it added.
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