VATICAN CITY — The Holy See is giving a cautious but positive assessment of the outcome of the latest bilateral talks with Israel after the leading Israeli representative in the negotiations said an agreement was very close.

In comments to The Jerusalem Post, outgoing deputy foreign minister Daniel Ayalon is reported to have said the Holy See and Israel were “on the verge of signing” the agreement that would fully formalize diplomatic relations, after a bilateral working commission held its plenary meeting in Jerusalem Jan. 29. He added that any final agreement was “subject to final approval by the government of Israel and the Holy See.”

But Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi played down the outcome of the talks, noting that the bilateral commission’s statement said the next plenary meeting will take place in June.

In view of this, Father Lombardi told the Register Jan. 30 that the view that the commission was “on the verge of signing” seems to be “a little forced.” But, he added, “It is true to say that the statement speaks again of significant progress and calls for a rapid conclusion of the agreement.”

The joint statement referred to the talks as taking place “in a thoughtful and constructive atmosphere” and that “significant progress was made.” It added that the commission “looks forward to a speedy conclusion of the Agreement.”

Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic ties in 1993, but outstanding problems related to economic and fiscal issues have been the subject of talks lasting 14 years. Much optimism has been expressed in the past, only to be quashed as the talks appeared to continue ad infinitum.

Still, Ayalon told The Jerusalem Post that in the past four years “a lot of ground has been covered, and after long, intensive and serious negotiations we have overcome most if not all the outstanding issues that have prevented signing of this agreement for so long.”

He explained that the final agreement was not signed on Jan. 29 because it was not appropriate for a caretaker government to sign the agreement, and that the actual acceptance and signing should be left to the next government. “All the groundwork is finished and I trust the new government will sign soon, which is nothing short of a milestone in the relationship,” he said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu narrowly won a third term in office in a nationwide poll Jan. 22nd, though the result is unlikely to affect the talks.


‘Real Upgrade’

Ayalon said the conclusion of the agreement signifies a “real upgrade in relations between Israel and the Holy See, and between the Jewish people and one billion Catholics around the world, to the benefit of both sides.”

But Ayalon, who has led the negotiations with the Vatican for the past four years, will be leaving his post next week, causing some to speculate that he can make such bold assertions now because he will no longer have responsibility for the outcome of the talks.

The Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli government expects the agreement to improve relations not only with the Vatican, but also with other Catholic countries around the world for whom the Vatican’s position vis-a-vis Israel is important.

The discussions have centered on three main issues: the status of the Catholic Church in Israel; the issue of sovereignty over some 21 sites in the country, including the Cenacle (Upper Room), and taxation and expropriation issues.

Ayalon said that solutions have been reached on each of those issues. The text being studied does not include the more challenging subject of the Vatican’s stance with regard to East Jerusalem (the Holy See does not recognize its annexation by Israel), nor problems regarding ecclesiastical properties in that part of the Holy City and in the West Bank. But the Holy See has already made clear that these issues do not form part of the document currently being negotiated.

The most contentious topic for discussion has concerned sovereignty over the Upper Room, where Jesus met with his disciples for the Last Supper, with the Church demanding ownership and Israel not willing to relinquish it. According to the Post, which didn’t name any sources, both parties have essentially agreed to disagree on the matter, but not let it stand in the way of the overall accord.

Also under the proposed agreement, the newspaper claims religious institutions owned by the Holy See will be exempted from tax, just as synagogues and mosques are, but Church-owned businesses will not.

It also said the accord works out the issue of expropriating Church property for infrastructure purposes, with a list of five sites — including the Mount of Beatitudes and Capernaum near the Sea of Galilee and the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth — where land expropriation would not be allowed except for public safety in situations of emergency, and then only after coordination with the Church.


Relations with Palestine

Meanwhile, the Holy See’s relations with the Palestinians appear to be moving forward.

For the first time, the Holy See has referred to the “State of Palestine” in a joint communiqué following open and cordial bilateral talks in Ramallah on Jan. 30. The talks were headed by Riad Al-Malki, minister of foreign affairs of the State of Palestine, and Msgr. Ettore Balestrero, undersecretary for the Holy See’s Relations with States.

The talks were aimed at reaching a comprehensive international agreement regulating and promoting the presence and activities of the Catholic Church in the Palestinian Territories, thereby strengthening the relations between the Holy See and Palestine.

More specifically, the discussions are aimed at enforcing the Basic Agreement, an accord signed by the Holy See and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the PLO, in 2000. The agreement underlined the Holy See’s support for greater rights for the Palestinians and spelled out issues of common interest between the two parties.

The joint statement said the talks were held “in an open and cordial atmosphere, an expression of the existing good relations between the Holy See and the State of Palestine.”

It said particular focus was placed on the Agreement’s “Preamble and Chapter I.”  It added that both parties expressed a wish that talks be “accelerated and brought to a speedy conclusion”, and it was therefore agreed that a “joint technical group will meet to follow-up.”

In the past, the Holy See has generally referred to State of Palestine as the PLO. However, the Vatican supported a U.N. General Assembly resolution Nov. 29 that recognized Palestinian statehood.  Pope Benedict XVI said he hoped the vote would spur the international community to find a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. 

Gratitude was also expressed during the Jan. 30th meeting to the Holy See, for its contribution of €100,000 towards the restoration of the roof of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.