JERUSALEM — Pope Francis inserted himself directly into the collapsed Middle East peace process Sunday, issuing an invitation to host the Israeli and Palestinian presidents for a prayer summit at his Vatican apartment 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 decrying 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.
“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; Abbas’s spokesman said the meeting would take place June 6.
Although the meeting is likely to be more symbolic than substantive — Israel’s presidency is ceremonial, and Peres leaves office in July — it could have atmospheric significance for a peace process that has all but completely stalled.
More broadly, the pope’s actions Sunday posed a dramatic 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. He has already had some success.
“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 Mideast politics can be especially perilous. In a region where religious divisions overlay the political impasse, the 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 that by making a personal invitation for a prayer summit, 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 the pope’s 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 — marking 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 fraught tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
In Bethlehem, where Francis spent six hours, he met 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 UN resolution that upgraded their status to observer-state.
He led a spirited Mass in a crowded Manger Square, which was bedecked with photo montages 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 — Abbas had earlier called it “monstrous” — and Israel insists it is essential to its security.
Francis prayed silently for several minutes, then touched his forehead to the wall, where someone had spray-painted “Pope, we need some 1 to speak about justice.”
Welcomed to Tel Aviv by 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.”
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 Netanyahu was aware of negotiations underway for the Vatican prayer summit — or whether he approved.