Pope Francis’ much anticipated visit to the Holy Land ended Monday after a whirlwind of activity. At 78, the pontiff was full of energy. The proof was his ability to keep up with Israeli President Shimon Peres, who at the age of 90 appears to be flirting with eternal youth.
It was Peres who used his personal charm and his amazing Rolodex, compiled over 70 years of public life, to convince Francis to make his first papal visit to the Holy Land (the pope traveled to Brazil last July, but he was simply fulfilling a commitment scheduled by his predecessor).
Throughout the trip to Israel, the pope and Peres co-starred in a buddy movie, “The Pontiff and the President Do Jerusalem.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was, at best, a supporting player. This was not unintentional. It was scripted that way.
This became apparent at the welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport. Peres and the pope embraced, traded kisses, held an intimate forehead-to-forehead chat and exchanged brotherly shoulder pats while Bibi looked on uncomfortably. When the prime minister was finally noticed, all he got was a smile and a handshake.
Nobody watching could mistake the fact that he had been upstaged, once again, by Peres.
The two men have history. In 1996, after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Peres led the Labor Party ticket but lost a close election to Netanyahu, the Likud’s upstart candidate. Peres looked set for retirement, but he is nothing if not competitive. In 2007 he ran for and won the presidency, the first former prime minister to do so.
In Israel, the presidency is supposed to be a home for washed-up pols. Peres transformed it into a center of power and prestige by leveraging his great popularity with world leaders and his keen political instincts at home. For the first time in his long and contentious career, Peres has become a beloved figure.
In public, he has been supportive of the prime minister. Off the record, he has had no trouble conveying his disapproval. He is an inveterate optimist who thinks Netanyahu is dragging his feet on the Palestinian issue. This view is very much embraced by the international foreign policy establishment, including the Vatican, which wants Israel to make a deal at any price.
Netanyahu, who has a much more pessimistic (and realistic) view of the Middle East, is generally unpopular with his fellow world leaders. They often express this dislike by comparing bad Bibi to sweet Shimon.
Personal relations aren’t paramount in foreign affairs, but they matter, and some of this is Netanyahu’s fault. He has an annoying tendency to insist on the last word. At a public meeting in Jerusalem, for example, Bibi informed the pope that Jesus was a Jew who had been to Jerusalem – facts that were possibly well known to the head of the Catholic Church. And, the prime minister added, Jesus spoke Hebrew.
“Aramaic,” the pope said.
“He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,” Netanyahu insisted.
It isn’t often that the pope gets publicly corrected on a matter concerning the life of Jesus. It is hard to know what he was thinking, but I’d be willing to guess that it was something along the lines of, “Damn, Benedict was right. This guy is a nudnik.”
If Bibi was out of sorts, he had reason to be. Earlier that day the pope announced that he was inviting Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the Vatican next month for a prayer summit. Vatican officials explained to reporters, not for attribution, of course, that the pope had invited Peres out of abiding friendship and deep respect.
Netanyahu’s office declined to comment. Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi came to Bibi’s aid, suggesting that the pope meant well, bless his heart, but didn’t realize that the Israeli presidency is a ceremonial position. Ashwari, an Anglican, evidently doesn’t regard the pontiff as infallible or even particularly bright.
But the pope knows exactly who’s who and what’s what. His prayer summit initiative was an inspired means of traversing the land mines of the Holy Land without blowing anything up and getting credit for doing something meaningful in the bargain.
The prayer summit in Rome will be more of the same. Abbas is harmless, and he will probably get a kick out of the Vatican museum, stuffed as it is with looted Jewish treasures. Peres, whose many failed election campaigns over the years have disabused him of the efficacy of Jewish prayer, can be counted on to say all the right things.
Meanwhile, the pope can honor his old buddy one more time, give Bibi a lesson in manners and, of course, pray for peace. Who knows? Maybe God will be listening for once.