VATICAN CITY — The likelihood of a 2014 papal visit to the Holy Land increased today, when Pope Francis met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the apostolic palace.

The Holy See confirmed that “plans for a pilgrimage” were discussed at this morning’s meeting, following unconfirmed reports in Israeli media last week that a visit will take place at the end of May next year.

In a statement, the Vatican said the 25-minute meeting focused on the “complex political and social situation in the Middle East, with particular reference to the reinstatement of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”

The two parties expressed the hope that “a just and lasting solution respecting the rights of both parties may be reached as soon as possible,” the statement said.

It added that, “aside from indicating the Holy Father’s plans for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, various questions were considered regarding the relations between the state authorities and the local Catholic communities, as well as between the state of Israel and the Holy See, in the hope that the agreement which has been in preparation for some time may be concluded forthwith.”

Optimism has grown over the past year that a final agreement on tax and property rights for Catholic institutions in Israel was imminent, but a conclusion remains elusive. Talks have been continuing for well over a decade.

The Vatican said the two leaders held “colloquial discussions” at this morning’s meeting. Reporters noted how friendly the rapport was between the Pope and Netanyahu.

In the exchange of gifts that followed, Netanyahu presented the Pope with a book written by his father on the Spanish Inquisition. Entitled The Origins of the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th Century and published in 1995, the work also contained a dedication that read: “To His Holiness Pope Francis, the great guardian and pastor of our common heritage.”

According to the publisher’s notes, the volume denies the claims of historians that the Spanish Inquisition targeted Jews and says instead that Catholics protected Jewish people during this period.

“My Spanish is practically zero, but my father, who died last year, was a historian and knew the language," Netanyahu said on presenting the gift to the Pope.

He also gave the Holy Father a silver menorah used in the annual Jewish celebration of Hanukkah that continues until Thursday.

Pope Francis presented the Israeli leader with a large bronze bas-relief featuring an image of St. Paul the Apostle.

This is Netanyahu’s third meeting with a pope: He met Pope Benedict XVI in Nazareth in 2009 and Pope John Paul II in 1997.

After meeting the Holy Father, the Israeli prime minister and his 13-member delegation met with Secretary of State Archbishop Pietro Parolin, accompanied by the undersecretary for relations with states, Msgr. Antoine Camilleri.


Holy Land Visit

In April this year, the Holy Father met Israeli President Shimon Peres, and in October, he met Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, during which Abbas invited the Pope to visit the Holy Land. Netanyahu was hoping to meet the Pope last month, but a lapse in communications between the Holy See and Israel prevented it from taking place then.

The Vatican has yet to confirm the discussed papal trip. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters after today’s meeting that the Vatican would not announce a visit until an advance team of officials had visited the possible sites. Any visit next year would coincide with the 50th anniversary of the historic embrace in the Holy Land between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras.

Despite the lack of official confirmation, all indications point toward a visit. The Pope, who fostered particularly good relations with Judaism as archbishop of Buenos Aires, is known to be very enthusiastic; and Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, was overheard saying to the Pope, “We are looking forward to this [visit].”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.