Holy See-Israel Talks Resume

Talks between Holy See and Israeli officials aimed at implementing an accord signed between the two states 10 years ago ended July 5 after only three hours but did not stall, Israeli officials said after the meeting.

The first meeting of the Permanent Joint Working Commission, set up by the Holy See and Israel, finished without any official statement.

Another meeting is planned for September. Discussions were said by some sources to have ended earlier than expected because the Israeli party was not authorized to negotiate any of the outstanding issues.

But Israel's ambassador to the Holy See, Oded Ben-Hur, said the talks were “far from being stalled.”

He admitted it was not possible to “pinpoint and present achievements” but added “that was not the purpose of the meeting.”

It was “part of a process,” Ben-Hur explained, to relaunch the working commission, which was set up to help ensure Israel fulfills its obligations to provide freedoms and rights for the Church as agreed upon in the Fundamental Agreement between the two parties in 1994.

Under the agreement, the Holy See agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Israel while Church privileges, such as tax-exempt status, restitution of Church properties, privileged judicial rights and state funding of social services provided by the Church to Israelis, were supposed to be granted by the Israeli government.

However, Israel has not passed any law fulfilling its obligations under the agreement.

Last August, Israel withdrew from the negotiations without any explanation while the two parties were working on provisions protecting Church properties and on tax exemptions.

But Ben-Hur said the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as well as the economic crisis, were the issues that have been higher priority by the Israeli government.

He also cited as obstacles “some huge differences” in the past and remaining problems over “judicial questions.”

In particular this applied to holy sites, which Ben-Hur said “no civilian court may pass a judgment on, so some kind of bypass was needed to be invented.”

But he is very confident that progress is being made. “We are getting there,” he said. “Things are still in the phase of being done behind the scenes and they're calling for a little bit more patience.”

The ambassador said the agreement is “extremely important” to Israel.

“It's time we understood the necessity for Israel to accept the fact that we're talking about a Catholic world of 1.2 billion people,” he said. “This is a major world power and we cannot ignore it, and it would be wrong of us to do so.”