THE VATICAN — The unprecedented summit at the Vatican on Sunday, joining Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in prayers for peace, was initially supposed to take place in Jerusalem during Pope Francis’ May visit to the Holy Land, The Times of Israel has learned.
“That was the first spot,” said Henrique Cymerman, a Portuguese-born multilingual veteran Israeli journalist with close ties to the pope.
Cymerman said that Peres was immediately open to meeting anywhere but that Abbas was less eager, ostensibly concerned he would be humiliated while passing through checkpoints from Ramallah into Israel.
Cymerman, who initially met with the pope last June along with Rabbi Avraham Skorka of Argentina, described receiving an unidentified call on his cellphone several months before the pope’s historic visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. “This is Papa Francesco,” the voice said, Cymerman recalled on the flight to Rome Sunday.
The reporter, who is close to Peres and the pope, nearly didn’t taken the call, thinking it a prank.
Pope Francis, whom he described as a great friend of the Jewish people, urged Cymerman to set up the prayer summit during his visit in May and said he could extend his trip as necessary.
Cymerman said the next venue offered to Abbas was Jericho, but that, too, was rejected. Next he attempted to set up the prayer on Mount Nebo, the hill in Jordan from which Moses was allowed to gaze into the promised land. This may have worked, he said, but Peres could not acquiesce because the pope’s visit to Jordan took place on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath.
Finally, after marathon talks, Cymerman said, the Vatican, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority tentatively agreed on a prayer for peace in Rome, and Pope Francis, with Abbas’s agreement in hand, quickly made the invitation public, sealing the deal.