The stalemated Israeli-Palestinian peace talks need a reboot, something different than mediation by the U.S. or U.S.-European-Russian-UN quartet. Sunday was certainly something different. In a garden behind St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Pope Francis, and Patriarch Bartholomew I — head of the Orthodox Christian churches — met and prayed. And the Israeli and Palestinian presidents talked privately for about 15 minutes. And embraced:
The gathering — initiated by Pope Francis during his trip to Israel and Palestinian territories, and set up in the two weeks since — was studiously apolitical. And Peres, whose office is largely ceremonial, is leaving office in a few weeks. While Peres is open to peace talks with Abbas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying, so far unsuccessfully, to isolate the Palestinian leader for forming a governing pact with Hamas.
But symbolism means a lot in a conflict as entrenched and inherently political as the Israeli-Palestinian mess. "Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare," the pope said during the ceremony. "It calls for the courage to say yes to encounter and no to conflict." At the end, Francis, Abbas, and Peres shook hands and planted an olive tree together. This never would have happened at Camp David. And that's kind of the point.