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Israeli and Palestinian Leaders to Meet With Pope at Vatican

JERUSALEM — Pope Francis inserted himself directly into the collapsed Middle East peace process on Sunday, issuing an invitation to host the Israeli and Palestinian presidents for a prayer summit at his apartment in the Vatican in an unexpected overture that has again underscored the broad ambitions of his papacy.

Francis took the extraordinary step in Bethlehem, where he became the first pontiff ever to fly directly into the West Bank and to refer to the Israeli-occupied territory as the “State of Palestine.”

The pope then made a dramatic, unscheduled stop to bow his head at Israel’s contentious security barrier separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, and decried the overall situation as “increasingly unacceptable.”

“There is a need to intensify efforts and initiatives aimed at creating the conditions for a stable peace based on justice, on the recognition of rights for every individual, and on mutual security,” Francis said. Peace “must resolutely be pursued, even if each side has to make certain sacrifices.”

Presidents Shimon Peres of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority accepted the pope’s invitation to pray together; Mr. Abbas’s spokesman said the meeting would take place June 6.

While the meeting is likely to be more symbolic than substantive – Israel’s presidency is ceremonial and Mr. Peres leaves office soon – it could have atmospheric significance for a peace process that has all but completely broken down.

More broadly, the invitation itself posed a dramatic example of how the outwardly unassuming Francis is reasserting the Vatican’s ancient role as an arbiter of international diplomacy.

The pope is “taking the negotiations to another level – a meeting in front of God,” said the Rev. Jamal Khadar, head of a West Bank seminary and a spokesman for the pope’s visit. The idea, he added, is to “make religion part of trying to find a solution instead of it being seen as a negative and a complication.”

Oded Ben Hur, a former Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, said the invitation to a prayer summit reflected the difference between Pope Francis and his predecessors “in a nutshell,” eschewing Vatican protocol and tradition to speak and act on a more human level.

“They don’t take initiatives – we call it ‘the holy balance’ – they don’t rock the boat,” Mr. Ben Hur said of the typical pontiff. “This is different. It’s a balance, but the fact is there is a move somewhere. He’s not conventional in that sense. When he thinks something, he expresses it.”

The intervention came on the second day of the Holy Father’s three-day sojourn through the Holy Land, which the Vatican has described as a religious pilgrimage but has profound political implications.

In a delicate diplomatic dance, the pope helicoptered from Bethlehem to Tel Aviv for an official head-of-state welcome to Israel, then back to Jerusalem for an ecumenical dinner with the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople.

That meeting, marking the 50th anniversary of a historic Jerusalem handshake that was the first contact between the world’s two largest churches in 500 years, was the stated purpose of the trip. But it was overshadowed by the pope’s pointed wading into the fraught tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.

In Bethlehem, Francis met Mr. Abbas as a peer, giving the Palestinians the kind of high-profile boost they have been seeking, and spotlighting the Vatican’s support for the 2012 United Nations resolution that upgraded their status to observer-state.

He led a spirited Mass in a crowded Manger Square, which was bedecked with photomontages blending Christian iconography with images of Palestinians’ difficult daily reality. Then he had lunch with families suffering particular hardships under Israel’s occupation, and was serenaded by scores of children from the nearby Dheisheh Refugee Camp, home to some 12,000 people exiled from former family homes since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

But the unforgettable image of the trip was the pope’s surprise exit from his open-topped vehicle to pray at a section of the concrete security barrier that snakes along and through the West Bank. Palestinians loathe the barrier – Mr. Abbas had earlier called it “monstrous” — and Israel insists is essential to its security.

Francis prayed silently for several minutes, then touched his forehead to the wall, where someone had spray-painted “Pope, we need some 1 to speak about justice.”

Welcomed to Tel Aviv by President Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Francis reiterated his call for a “sovereign homeland” for Palestinians “with freedom of movement.”

“I implore those in positions of responsibility to leave no stone unturned in the search for equitable solutions to complex problems,” he said. “The path of dialogue, reconciliation and peace must constantly be taken up anew, courageously and tirelessly.”

Mr. Netanyahu said at the ceremony, “Our hand is outstretched in peace to whoever wants to live with us in peace,” but also referred to Jerusalem as the Israel’s “eternal capital, the heart of our faith,” anathema to Palestinians’ aspirations to have East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

The prime minister’s spokesman declined to say whether Mr. Netanyahu was aware of negotiations underway for the Vatican prayer summit – or whether he approved.

Mr. Peres, a former prime minister who ends his term in July, has been an outspoken advocate for peace and recently disclosed that he and Mr. Abbas had neared agreement in back-channel talks only to be blocked by Mr. Netanyahu. While popular among Israelis and respected around the world, he has little influence on Israeli policy.

“The pope wants to play a constructive role, and maybe he thinks gathering them together he can do that, but he doesn’t know Peres doesn’t make political decisions at all,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee. “Peres has been saying the same thing for years, and nobody listened. The political establishment is going one way and he just tries to give it a clean bill of health for public relations.”

After Secretary of State John Kerry’s intensive nine-month push for a two-state deal fell apart last month, the pope’s initiative is an implicit indictment of international peacemaking efforts.

Aaron David Miller, a former American peace negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, said the summit would neither hurt nor help the process but would provide “another reflection of American fecklessness in the wake of Kerry’s failed effort.”

Other experts agreed that the joint prayer could not substitute for political negotiations and would not prompt a breakthrough, but said it might change public perceptions in a conflict increasingly defined by deep mutual distrust.

Daniel Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations said the meeting would “mean nothing in big-picture terms” but “in the margins” would belie the widely held Israeli belief that Mr. Abbas is not a willing peace partner and could “drive more of a wedge” between centrist and right-wing components of Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

David Horovitz, a longtime Israeli journalist who described himself as “cynical about everything,” said the summit could challenge many Israelis’ concern that “the Palestinian public has not come to terms with the legitimacy of a Jewish state.”

“It would be naïve to think that the sight of Peres, Abbas, and the pope doing anything together is going to change the world,” said Mr. Horovitz, editor of the Times of Israel news site. “If you look at it in political terms, O.K., insignificant, but if you look at it as an effort to foster a different mindset among Israelis and Palestinians, psychologically, I think this is very positive.”

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(via NY Times)