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 meeting at his apartment in the Vatican, in an overture that has again underscored the broad ambitions of his papacy.
Francis took the unexpected 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.”
After describing the overall situation between Israel and the Palestinians as “increasingly unacceptable,” the pope made a dramatic, unscheduled stop at Israel’s contentious concrete barrier separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, where he prayed and touched his head against the graffiti-covered wall.
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“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.
Though 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, Pope Francis’ actions on Sunday posed a striking example of how, barely a year into his papacy, he is seeking to reassert the Vatican’s ancient role as an arbiter of international diplomacy.
Last September, an estimated 100,000 people took part in a four-hour peace vigil for Syria at St. Peter’s Square as the United States was contemplating military strikes against the Syrian government.
The pope influenced the political debate in the United States and beyond with his outspoken denunciation of global inequality and his critique of global capitalism. During his visit to the Vatican in March, Mr. Obama lavished praise on the pope as he sought to align his own political agenda on issues such as raising the minimum wage with that of Francis, whose global popularity, for the moment, seems to transcend religion.
“If you look around the world, there are very few political leaders who are relatively untainted,” said Philip Jenkins, a history professor who teaches at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. “People want to believe there is somebody good and charismatic, and a good authority figure, out there.”
But plunging into Middle East politics can be especially perilous. In a region where religious divisions overlay the political impasse, Francis’ prayer summit “is taking the negotiations to another level — a meeting before 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 by making a personal invitation for a prayer summit meeting, Francis eschewed Vatican protocol and tradition while showing atypical boldness. Most pontiffs, he said, “don’t rock the boat.”
“This is different,” he added. “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.”
Sunday was the second of Francis’ three-day sojourn through the Holy Land, a trip with a carefully designed itinerary. 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, commemorating 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 tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
In Bethlehem, where Francis spent six hours, he met Mr. Abbas as a peer, giving the Palestinians the kind of high-profile boost they had 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 perhaps the defining image of the trip was the pope’s surprise exit from his open-topped vehicle to pray at a section of the concrete barrier that snakes along and through the West Bank. Palestinians loathe the barrier — Mr. Abbas has called it “monstrous” — and Israel insists it is essential to its security. Francis touched his forehead to the wall near 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 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.
The pope’s symbolic gestures on Sunday sketched an implicit indictment of international peacemaking efforts by the so-called Quartet and, most recently, Secretary of State John Kerry.
The State Department was not involved in arranging the prayer summit, but its spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said on Sunday that Mr. Kerry “is a great admirer of Pope Francis’ leadership, and welcomes his spiritual initiative to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace through prayer and his call for courageous efforts to achieve a two-state solution.”
Mr. Peres, a former prime minister who ends his presidential term in July, has been an outspoken advocate for peace. But while he is popular among Israelis and respected around the world, Mr. Peres 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.”
Other experts on the peace process 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 mind-set among Israelis and Palestinians, psychologically, I think this is very positive.”