One way to appreciate the enormity of the project of Middle East peace, and the implacable nature of the parties involved, is to study the British Mandate of Palestine. It began with the 1917 capture of Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire by Sir Edmund Allenby (famously entering the city on foot out of respect for its religious status). British occupation was made legal, at least in the eyes of international law, with the partition of formerly Ottoman Arab lands between the British and the French drawn up by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement and formalized by the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which formally concluded the war between the Ottoman Empire and most of the Allied Powers. That treaty laid the foundation for theLeague of Nations to give, between 1920 and 1922, a series of mandates to both powers to govern these former Ottoman lands. What made the British position in Palestine complicated was two promises made by them to two distinct groups. First, the British, needing allies to fight the Ottoman Empire during World War One, promised the Arabs self-rule in exchange for their revolting against their Ottoman overlords. Second, in 1917 then-foreign minister Arthur Balfour promised British Jewish Zionists to commit Britain to forming a “national home” for Jews. This promise was formalized in the same Sèvres treaty. The essential problem was that the British made two different promises with two different peoples who were and remain at odds over the same claim to the same small parcel of land, with its major city, Jerusalem, at the center. It should be no surprise that Sir Douglas Harris, Britain’s Special Commissioner in Palestine who advised the British High Commissioners (i.e. Governors) of Palestine, claimed that negotiating among the Jewish and Arab interests was like “ploughing sand.” When Jews and Arabs weren’t struggling against each other, they’d temporarily cooperate…against the British occupation of Palestine.
Sixty-six years after the British Mandate expired with the United Nations’ partition of Palestine and Israeli independence, Pope Francis exercised a familiar role of the modern papacy, and did so with the most intractable issue in modern international diplomacy, by bringing together the presidents of Israel and Palestine in prayer at the Vatican on June 8. Familiar because it has become commonplace for modern popes since Leo XIII to engage in international diplomacy, and for Latin Americans, the papacy playing such a role is expected. (It was Pope John Paul II’s diplomatic mediation from 1978 to 1984 that facilitated the treaty between Argentina and Chile that resolved their dispute over the Beagle Channel, averting war at the tip of South America.) However, unlike Latin America, the most Catholic region on Earth and hence open to papal authority, Israel and Palestine are anything but. Anshel Pfeffer wrote in the Israeli center-left daily Haaretz that Shimon Peres and Mahmood Abbas are socialists, nationalists, and pragmatists who do not place the same priority on religion compared to their host, or many of their political rivals and opponents at home. (This is not to equate Pope Francis with the religiously driven parties in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.) The two nations continue their tortured relationship, with peace talks currently deadlocked over the same familiar problems, based on the contradictory goals of the two nations. For example, the statements made by Peres and Abbas brought up a recurring point of contention between Israel and Palestine: the status of Jerusalem. Both leaders did pray for the peace of Jerusalem, but Peres called Jerusalem the “beating heart of the Jewish people” while Abbas called on God to “save our blessed city of Jerusalem.” Skeptical observers may be tempted to say that Pope Francis’s noble gesture is being played by the two sides to gain advantage in what has become a political stalemate. Despite Israel’s security wall and actions that point to an apparent slow annexation of the West Bank through settlements, Palestine will not go away. Factions within the Palestinian Authority may want to push Israel into the sea, but sixty-six years of a viable democratic nation-state makes such an unwelcome vision almost impossible. One hopes that most people in Israel and Palestine recognize this elementary fact, and continue to dialogue to achieve a viable, just, two-state solution.
Pope Francis’ goal for the Invocation for Peace appears small at first blush. In one of his impromptu (or shrewdly staged?) in-flight news conferences, the pope described it as “not…for mediation or to find solutions. We are just meeting up to pray. Then everyone goes home.” Long-term, the strategy behind the pope’s diplomatic initiative is to keep the parties talking with the hope that interpersonal relationships form, with the trust developed in those relationships yielding a durable and just diplomatic settlement.
One can see this with the structure of the invocation, and the guests Pope Francis invited to the Vatican to accompany Peres, Abbas, and himself. The invocation followed (depending on one’s point of view) the historical or revelatory sequence of the three Abrahamic faiths, with each group of believers taking turns with their respective prayers from their respective sacred texts: the Jewish prayers began the invocation, continued with the Christian prayers, and concluded with the Muslims’. On the surface, though the invocation featured separate sets of prayers by separate faiths, a closer look reveals a shrewd call to solidarity in the cause of justice and peace. All the prayers recited by Jew, Christian, and Muslim are unified in their themes: the thanksgiving and glorification of God, repentance and atonement for sins, and an entreaty to God to bring salvation and justice, in particular deliverance from oppression and violence. The statements by the pope and the two presidents followed.
A major theme that coursed through Pope Francis’ remarks was how peace is developed through setting aside enmity, dismantling or reforming the attitudes and structures which fuel that enmity, and developing relationships, ideally friendship with the other, from which justice and peace can develop. Pope Francis backed his remarks with action by means of some of the people he invited as his personal guests. Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople was present, signifying the pope’s intent to practice what he preached, working to heal the division between the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Two personal friends of the pope from his native Argentina, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano, and Muslim leader Omar Abboud, were also in attendance. Here, Pope Francis offered Peres and Abbas concrete examples of the friendship that can be achieved, and the hope of the authentic reconciliation that can come with dialogue.
History is replete with conflicts once thought irreconcilable. Not long ago, it was thought that the Troubles of Northern Ireland or mutual nuclear arms reduction between the United States and Russia and other former Soviet Republics would never find a just and durable (if not final) resolution. These and other conflicts were resolved diplomatically because relational bonds of trust got established in the course of negotiating a solution favorable to all parties. Before the dialogue of truth occurs, one must have the dialogue of love.
Balfour Declaration (1917). https://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Balfour_Declaration_of_1917.html.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Treaty of Peace with Turkey (Sèvres). http://treaties.fco.gov.uk/docs/pdf/1920/TS0011.pdf.
Shepherd, Naomi. Ploughing Sand: British Rule in Palestine: 1917-1948. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1999.
Ramón Luzárraga is Assistant Professor of Theology at Benedictine University – Mesa in Mesa, Arizona, where he is also Chair of the Department of Theology. His interests include political theology, and Hispanic and Caribbean theology.