An Empty Prayer for Peace at the Vatican

Peres and Abbas may have welcomed a day of rest with Pope Francis, but neither likely gained much from the prayers.

Haim Tzach / GPO

The Israeli and Palestinian presidents are both of a generation that chose to turn away from the religious backgrounds of their childhoods to embrace the twin paths of socialism and nationalism. Both Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, like any good socialists of their day, realized that the future of their nations lay in alliances with the West. Both eventually came to recognize that the path to prosperity runs through Washington.

It would be hard to find a man of their generation whose life took a more different path than Jorge Maria Bergoglio, who has been a seminarian since the age of 19. The man of prayer has very little in common with the two ruthless pragmatists.

While he devoted his life to learning, spirituality and pastoral duties, they built national movements, outmaneuvered their rivals in high-stakes politics, and dealt with generals, billionaires and diplomats as equals. When confronted with the challenges of the "Dirty War" during the reign of the generals' junta in his native Argentina, Bergoglio retreated into his church, refusing to speak out against the human rights violations, the mass arrests and the "disappearances."

On Sunday, as Pope Francis, he told the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians that "peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare," but he had no sage advice on how to find this courage - except for prayer.

If Peres or Abbas had been especially spiritual, they could have joined each other in a prayer for peace any of the dozens, perhaps hundreds of times they've met since the Oslo process began more than two decades ago. Instead, their efforts have bogged down over the last 21 years. While Israel has prospered and the Palestinian Authority has become an entity unto itself with a state-like bureaucracy of its own, neither side has come any closer to embracing the necessary compromise.

Peres and Abbas both played their part in the impeccably choreographed ceremony that took place in the Vatican's manicured gardens. The music was heavenly and the liturgy well-chosen, but neither man seemed to be doing much praying. In their minds both of them were probably telling themselves that this is not religion as it's known in the region. They were too polite to say so, but if they had told Pope Francis what was on their minds, they would have described a religious climate where rabbis and sheikhs don't pray for peace and reconciliation but instead call on their followers to mercilessly vanquish their enemies. That's the religious climate to which the two men will return after their brief respite in Rome.

The gardens of the Vatican, where the Pope led Sunday's 'Invocation for Peace,' June 8, 2014. Photo by Haim Tzach / GPO

Peres will go back to his office in Jerusalem - already being packed up in boxes - and then to a new office in Tel Aviv, from which he will forlornly try to rally the dwindled ranks of Israel's "peace camp." Abbas will return to Ramallah and the precarious business of trying to keep his new coalition with Hamas from running aground - the business of maintaining the support of the Arab world and an international community that is rapidly losing the little interest it still has in the Palestinian cause.

The pope graciously gave Peres and Abbas a day of rest, but they have little use for his prayers.

Shimon Peres (left), Mahmoud Abbas (second left), Pope Francis (third left) and Patriarch Bartholomew I (right, behind tree) plant trees at at the 'Invocation for Peace,' June 8, 2014. Photo by Haim Tzach / GPO