Israel-Holy See Agreement "Possible Before December"

Israel's Ambassador to the Holy See, Mordechay Lewy (far left), speaking to reporters in Rome.
Israel's Ambassador to the Holy See, Mordechay Lewy (far left), speaking to reporters in Rome. (photo: Israeli embassy to the Holy See)

Israel’s outgoing ambassador to the Holy See, Mordechay Lewy, has said his government and the Holy See are “very close” to signing an agreement that has taken nearly 20 years to reach.

"There has been great progress on the fiscal part, we are very close to the definitive signing,” Lewy told reporters yesterday. "The next meeting [of the bilateral commission] is in December but that doesn’t mean the signing cannot be done even before then."

Last month we reported that the long-running talks aimed at reaching an accord on outstanding issues related to the 1993 Fundamental Agreement had reached their “final stage.”

Vatican Insider’s report is the latest to confirm that an agreement could be about to take place. If so, it would allow Church institutions in Israel, which care for the many holy sites and carry out extensive humanitarian work, to operate without fear of crippling tax penalties and other legal and economic restrictions.

"I am very confident about the possibility of closing the agreement soon,” Lewy said, “as I am not the only one to say it, but so, too, are Vatican sources."

He said “progress really took place only recently,” adding that remaining unresolved legal issues are “not substantial.” Lewy, popularly known as "motti", said he briefed Pope Benedict XVI on the developments when he paid him a farewell visit last week.

As part of the improved relations, Israel recently lifted restrictions on visas for diplomatic passports of the Holy See.

Pave the Way Foundation, a non-sectarian organisation that strives to bridge gaps between religions, intervened twice to help restart the talks, in 2003 and 2006, after they became deadlocked. Its Jewish founder, Gary Krupp, told me recently the two parties are the “closest they’ve been to reaching an agreement since 1994.”  

He added: “The compromise is very good from what I understand, because ecclesiastical and Church facilities are not going to be taxed, but there are entities that are for-profit that should be taxed.”

Such optimism of an agreement has been voiced many times before, so it's perhaps best to keep celebrations on hold for now, but it does seem as though this time it's different.

Lewy, an historian and prolific author, is credited for some of the progress, as is Archbishop Antonio Franco, the outgoing papal nuncio to Israel.