The elements were as helpful as the actors themselves for this unprecedented event.
Indeed, not only did the choice of the Vatican Gardens impart a sense of serenity on a glorious evening, it was equally meaningful in that it was one of the few places that does not feature any Christian iconography which could have perhaps ruffled the sensibilities of some members of the other two faiths. Pope Francis was also clearly quite relaxed as he welcomed his two guests. After all, not only was he making history with this own people-to-people initiative, but the Ecumenical Patriarch HAH Bartholomew I also attended this prayerful event as did his two friends from Buenos Aires, Rabbi Avraham Skorka and Professor Omar Abboud. Also in the magnificent and expansive garden were Jewish, Muslim and Christian delegations from the Holy Land, Rome and elsewhere.
The prayers from each of the three delegations were selected carefully and focused on the three themes of 'creation', 'invocation for forgiveness' and 'invocation for peace'. In fact, not only did the two presidents recite their prayers in Hebrew and Arabic, they also kissed at the end since they know each other from 1993 when they both signed the Oslo Accords. They also helped the pope and Patriarch Bartholomew plant the olive trees - the same trees that are a universal symbol of peace, the national symbol for Palestine and the trees that Israeli settlers keep uprooting from Palestinian lands.
So as he had promised in both Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Pope Francis offered his home in the Vatican as a place for this encounter of prayer. And now that the event is over, and both presidents have re-iterated their desire for peace, what happens next to the conflict - more so since President Peres completes his term as president of Israel at the end of July?
Pope Francis had invited both presidents and their delegations for 'a heartfelt prayer' in the hope that it might well help soften some of the hardened hearts or tackle the mounting cynicism that surrounds any renewed discussion over the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He wants to restart significant dialogue. And this is why the success or failure of his initiative hinges to a large measure on whether both parties resume negotiations or stick to their recalcitrant positions.
The Pope was pulling all the levers though. During his address in Italian, he touched upon two key points which are essential realities in the lives of many men and women in the Holy Land where religious beliefs still remain strong. The first was to remind his guests that it is harder to make peace than to make war. How true for a conflict that has lasted for at least 47 years if we start counting from the six-day war of 1967 and not earlier. The second point the Pope invoked is that prayer is all-powerful, and it should be used to bring peace to the Middle East let alone to the world.
But even with those two powerful statements and the elegant symbolism that is a trademark for Vatican events, I still do not think Pope Francis frankly expects an abrupt metanoia or transformation that would unshackle the hearts of Israeli or Palestinian political leaders who would then rush headlong into a 'comprehensive' deal. Nor do I for that matter - and certainly not the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who was not a guest at the Vatican and who stated on the very same day that he prefers security to prayer. Does his statement not somehow encapsulate the essence of this whole conflict?
Jacques Attali is a French musician and writer of almost fifty books. He is also inter alia a French economist as well as former advisor to President François Mitterrand and belongs to the top 100 public intellectuals in the world according to the Foreign Policy Magazine of 2008. On a programme entitled Internationales on the French channel TV5 Monde, he suggested that Palestinians do not wish to achieve a two-state solution and that they have shifted back to the earlier claims for a one-state solution where they will then accuse Israel of being an apartheid state that segregates its population along the South African model. That way, he posited, they would aim for the whole Palestinian historical cake!
I have worked on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for three decades both as an ecumenical consultant to the Middle East Council of Churches as much as for all the Churches of the Holy Land. Besides, I was also a legal second-track negotiator during the Oslo chapter of political negotiations. And I strongly disagree with both of Attali's premises. Instead, I would argue that the Israeli-Palestinian political impasse has primarily been the result of an Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands since 1967. This unyielding occupation has been bleeding the Palestinian psyche dry and leading to a change of political aims. The inexorable colonisation of Palestinian land and the unstoppable hard-line drive for illegal settlements in Jerusalem or the West Bank have been shifting the demographics of this small parcel of land and haemorrhaging the chances for a much-mooted 'two-state' solution year-in-year-out. Undoing the occupation is key to any resolution.
Despite myriad Palestinian weaknesses, divisions and fratricidal power-plays, Abu Mazen remains by far one of the most dovish Palestinian leaders. But even he cannot deliver the goods today. This is why the irenic message that Pope Francis sent out on Sunday is one of strong encouragement to pursue the mission of peace and dialogue. To do so, he used his Petrine authority and his formidable moral authority to nudge - shame - both parties not to give up. But will both sides hear him out or will we truly see Jacques Attali's predictions coming true once Palestinians feel they have no other recourse whatsoever? The answer to this question does not lie at the Vatican or in Ramallah for that matter but rather at 3 Kaplan Street in Jerusalem - the residence of the Israeli prime minister.