Honoring Shimon Peres after 30 years of the Oslo accords

Abraham Skorka

Georgetown University, Washington DC

Next September 13th will mark the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo agreements.
Weighty tomes could be written about the efforts toward peace and understanding between
Israelis and Palestinians at that time, so in this brief article I would like to honor Israeli
President Shimon Peres for his crucial and tireless labors at that time. It is fitting, and perhaps
inspiring, to give testimony to the dream of peace that motivated Israel’s ninth president
throughout his life.

On April 30th , 2013, 48 days after the 266th Pope of the Catholic Church was elected, Francis
received Shimon Peres at the Vatican. It was an encounter at a deep personal level.
Immediately a sympathetic relationship arose between the two. They each perceived that they
shared the same dream: that of a global reality of peace, justice, and brotherhood among
peoples. At this their first meeting, Peres invited the Pope to visit Israel.
Upon learning of the friendship that Pope Francis and I share, Peres wrote to me the next
month to say how moved he was by his visit with the Holy Father, saying:

Jerusalem, May 19, 2013

Dear Rabbi Skorka,
It is with a great deal of satisfaction that I returned to Jerusalem from my recent trip to
the Vatican. I recall the experiences made over the course of my visit with much
appreciation and I shall forever cherish the memory of my enriching encounter with His
Holiness.
The book which you co-authored with Pope Francis served as a source of inspiration for
the wonderful accomplishment which our relations with the Catholic Church can
achieve. I particularly appreciated your remarks about the tower of Babel. Perhaps our
attempts to reach tolerance and understanding between all peoples and nations will
provide atonement for the tragic episode.
I also wish to seize this opportunity to thank you for your efforts to further deepen and
strengthen our relations with the Holy See. And it is in this spirit that, as I mentioned to
His Holiness during our meeting, I look forward to His Holiness’ visit to the Holy Land
and to hosting him as an honored guest of the State of Israel and as a dear friend.
I am confident that under His Holiness’ leadership, the relations between our peoples
and nations will only further expand for the benefit of us all.
With high regard,

Shimon Peres

It seems to me that Pope Francis understood Peres’ dreams for peace in a profound way. He
arrived on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2014 with a peace proposal that envisioned the peaceful coexistence of two states. He demonstrated empathy and understanding towards the suffering of the Palestinian people, while also reaffirming the right of the State of Israel to exist by honoring the memory of the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, at his tomb in
Jerusalem.

When President Peres greeted the pontiff at the presidential residence in Jerusalem, Francis
was so touched that he exclaimed—in the mode of the Beatitudes in the Gospel of
Matthew—“With a touch of imagination, I would like to invent a new Beatitude, one I can
apply to myself today: ‘Blessed is he who enters the house of a wise and good man.’ I feel
blessed.”

Shortly thereafter, Peres enthusiastically supported the idea that a special prayer for peace
takes place in the Vatican gardens. This memorable event, including the planting of an olive
tree with the Holy Father, the President of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas, and Greek Orthodox
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, eventually occurred on June 8th , 2014.

On December 3rd , 2015, I visited the now retired President Peres in his apartment in Tel Aviv.
For an hour he described his vision of the world. He passionately spoke of his hope that the
continuous advancement of science and technology would help to bring about the
achievement of a universal peace.

A few days later, I received the following message from him:

Tel Aviv- Jaffa, December 14th 2015

Dear Rabbi Skorka, Dear Friend,
As always, it was my utmost pleasure to meet with you. I always conclude our
meetings feeling energized with hope.
Globalization is at its peak, time is not delaying and we are persistently being faced
with all encompassing challenges. Whilst we may not have the power to comprehend
the growing violent menace of terrorism, we can influence how people think and
especially if we start with our youth.
I believe that the future is in the hands of our youth, and they hold the key to changing
discourse. It is our role to lead them onto the path of coherence and we must provide
a positive alternative for them.
His Holiness Pope Francis is the beacon of light in our time presenting an enlightened
approach to global order. His Holiness is a leader that one wishes to emulate. Where
others have struggled he has flourished, leading the masses both needy and fulfilled
through prayer.
Pope Francis has brought dialogue and tolerance between foes like Cuba and the
United States of America, a milestone that seemed out of reach.

Just like the prayers led in the Vatican with President Mahmoud Abbas, I believe an
additional prayer can be held focusing on our youth.

Under the auspices of His Holiness Pope Francis, leaders from different religions can
come together and teach youth from around the world to accept differences, live side-
by-side and work towards a harmonious future.
I look forward to seeing you in the near future.
Sincerely yours,

Shimon Peres

Peres’ idea for an interreligious prayer for the younger generations did not occur due to his sad
death in 2016. But I often think of that olive tree growing quietly in the Vatican gardens. As a
person of faith, I have to believe that one day the olive tree —planted by Pope Francis,
President Peres, President Abbas, and Patriarch Bartholomew—will produce good olives in the
midst of a peace-filled reality. Despite the challenges of realizing the promise of the Oslo
Accords, the friendship between Francis and Peres is a sign that shalom will inevitably prevail.