THE VATICAN — President Shimon Peres, who as a teenager took the pen name Ben-Amotz in recognition of the biblical Isaiah the son of Amotz, journeyed to the Vatican on Sunday morning to deliver the prophet’s famous vision of swords beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks.

His trip began early in the morning, on El Al flight 385. As Peres took a seat at the front of a plane packed with tourists, journalists, and clergyman, the chief pilot welcomed him on board and said he was happy to be escorting the president “on his historic trip for peace.”

Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber, the president of the Institute for Advanced Torah Study at Bar-Ilan University, described himself and the other clergymen at the fore of the aircraft as “pawns.” Prayers, he said, would not change the political positions of leaders. “But what we can do is to try and show that religion can bridge differences rather than accentuate them.”

Clergy can highlight “areas that have been exaggerated,” Sperber said, such as “the [question of the] permissibility of giving back lands.” Speaking of the sabbatical year, during which Jewish-owned lands in Israel are supposed to lay fallow, he said that the Jewish custom of selling the land itself to a gentile, as will occur this coming fall, is proof of the possibility of leniency.

From the next seat over, Rabbi Rasson Arussi, a member of the Israel Rabbinical Council and a judge on the rabbinical court, said that “sometimes where the politicians fail, religion can succeed.”

He also revealed that he had composed a special prayer for the occasion, but that the Vatican authorities, fearing improvisation, had rejected the notion of a new invocation.

And in fact, the ceremony at the Vatican, conducted on a slender triangle of grass opposite the Ethnographic Museum, was very traditional. The order of the service was chronological, with the oldest religion first. Each part consisted of three moments – praise to God for creation, pardon from God from our failures, and a request “of peace to the Holy Land and to enable us to be peacemakers.” Each section was bracketed by musical interludes.

Pope Francis and the two presidents planting an olive tree in the garden (photo credit: Chaim Tzach/ GPO)

Pope Francis and the two presidents planting an olive tree in the garden (photo credit: Chaim Tzach/ GPO)

The rabbis read Psalms with the sort of feeling often absent from the verses when politicians employ them, and an imam poured heart and soul into a prayer calling for God to “make us, O Lord, keys to all that is good, locks to all that is evil…”

For long stretches, though, the outdoor ceremony, conducted to the tune of constant birdsong, had the feel of a long and hot wedding ceremony, carefully choreographed but tiresome.

Then came the pope and the two politicians.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, one source said, wanted to make a combative speech. In the end, he kept it tame but spoke of not only peace but “a just peace, dignified living, and liberty… in our sovereign and independent state.”

Peres, who was raised Orthodox (in Michael Bar-Zohar’s biography Peres is quoted as saying that only after he came to Israel was the synagogue “no longer part of my Saturday morning schedule and the dialogue with a distant deity gave way to the close touch of the sea and the sand”), capped his speech with a slowly spoken demand to “make it happen,” because “we owe it to our children.” Departing from his prepared remarks, he said softly, “I was young. Now I am old. I experienced war. I tasted peace. Never will I forget the bereaved families — parents and children — who paid the cost of war. And all my life I shall never stop to act for peace, for generations to come.” He intoned the sentences like a prayer.

Where Abbas is the PA’s chief decision-maker, Peres’s post is symbolic, and his presence here was likely an irritant to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seeking to isolate the new Abbas-led, Hamas-backed Palestinian government. But Peres ends his seven-year term next month, and could not have been dissuaded from attending.

Pope Francis spoke of “saplings cut down at the height of their promise.” He spoke of “children who are weary, worn out by conflicts and yearning for the dawn of peace.” He encouraged both sides to say “yes to sincerity and no to duplicity.” He begged God to “come to our aid!” and he asked that “our way of life will always be that of: Shalom, Peace, Salaam!”

Asked before the ceremony whether this pope, who has created a radical shift in the papacy, actually believed he could change the course of the conflict and succeed where the US Secretary of State John Kerry so recently failed, a person well acquainted with Pope Francis said, “This pope knows he probably won’t be able to make peace. But preventing war – that he can do.”