Friday, November 18, 2005

Aftermath: Israeli-Vatican relations

Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) – The audience granted by Pope Benedict XVI to Israel's President Moshe Katzav, at the Vatican, on 17 November, has been the subject of a great deal of interest, and has served to confirm that the relationship is at a crossroads. The Press Office of the Holy See emphasised that "particular attention" was given at the meeting to "the [need for] implementation" of the two treaties already signed and ratified by Israel with the Holy See. As is well known, twelve years after signing the Fundamental Agreement, Israel has not yet initiated the procedures for writing it into Israeli law; last year, the Government actually told the Supreme Court that it did not consider itself bound by it at all, and has declined to modify this position in spite of diplomatic and other protests.

Thus, according to a dispatch from Agence France-Presse, the Holy See has told the Israelis that a Papal visit to Israel—in response to President Katzav's courteous invitation—would only be appropriate after Israel has implemented the Fundamental Agreement (1993) and the "Legal Personality Agreement" (1997), and has allowed the completion of the all-important further Agreement now being negotiated. Agence France-Presse has been for years, so it is believed, the preferred "vehicle" of certain Vatican offices for news that it is not opportune to announce officially.

Read the complete article Katzav’s promises to the Pope to be tested soon from

If the report from AFP is correct and the Holy See is prepared to play hardball with the State of Israel on the negotiations, I would be quite impressed. Papal visits are very impressive events and can grant a lot of prestige to a government (Castro on stage with John Paul II comes to mind). John Paul II visited Israel in 2000, so it's not as if Israel is lacking in this category.

John Paul II's visit was important because of all the efforts he had made toward the reconciliation between Catholicism and Judaism. He was not visiting as a head of state so much as the Supreme Pontiff of a billion Catholics recognizing the debt owed by Christianity to its elder brother in the worship of the God of Abraham. The process began with John Paul II.

However, the Holy See's relationship with Israel has reached a new level. Now, the devil is in the details. Photo ops and grand gestures must be replaced with deeds and the details must be worked out and finalized or else all the grand gestures will be hollow. The hope is that the visit of Katzav will serve to close the circle and bring a resolution to the decade-long delay in wrapping up what John Paul II started.

On the same day that President Katzav was in the Vatican, Israel's top negotiator with the Holy See, Mr. Nimrod Barkan, the head the of intelligence department at the Foreign Ministry, was in Washington.

The diplomat, who is also the intelligence chief at the foreign ministry, was meeting with American officials and Catholic personalities, in an attempt to persuade them that he is trying very hard to reach agreement with the Holy See's own negotiators on the serious questions that remain unresolved between the Parties.

As the Washington correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports, the purpose of Israeli diplomacy there is to get the U.S. to cease pressing Israel to show greater commitment to the talks. The correspondent speaks of the decisive role of the U.S. in inducing Israel to resume the negotiations in 2004 (after suddenly abandoning them on 28 August 2003), and of the continuing interest that both the U.S. Catholic Church and the U.S. Government take in the state of the negotiations.

In considering US-Israeli relations, I find Mr. Barkan's visit to Washington to be very interesting. Only a few days before, the US Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, was in Israel to take part in talks for border crossings and the transit of Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank. That Mr. Barkan, a senior official, would go to the US to lobby for a change in US policy perhaps illustrates the importance Israel places on its own policy towards the Holy See and how it views the US's interest in the matter.

The AsiaNews article sums it up best (the bolding is my own):

Others though allow themselves a measure of scepticism. They recall Israel's foreign minister's visit to the Vatican in July 2003, when the minister declared that he expected to return "within three months" to sign the new Agreement. Yet his very next step was to withdraw his delegation from the negotiations (on 28 August that year)....

But Father Jaeger has no patience with such sceptics, and is determined to concentrate on the positive signs: "The past is the past. We must trust that the President's visit inaugurates a new era."

Such optimism will soon be put to the test. The Holy See's next negotiating session with Israel is set for 24 November.

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