U.S. Bishops’ President Helps Restart Vatican-Israel Talks

VATICAN CITY — Thanks to a timely intervention by the president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, negotiations between the Holy See and Israel on implementing the 1993 Fundamental Agreement now appear to be back on track.

Talks on the agreement, which forms the basis of diplomatic relations between the two states, seemed to be faltering when negotiations scheduled to take place Jan. 12-13 were cancelled.

But a strongly worded and unusually detailed letter — written by Bishop William Skylstad in early January and addressed to the new U.S. secretary of state, Dr. Condoleeza Rice, and to Daniel Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador in Washington — appears to have brought about pressure for a new round of talks, now scheduled to take place Feb. 15-16.

In the letter, Bishop Skylstad wrote that the U.S. bishops were “deeply dismayed by the lack of progress” concerning unresolved issues of the agreement and that they feared “a lack of commitment on the part of the Israeli government in negotiations.”

The bishop went on to explain that the Fundamental Agreement was made between the two states, without a full resolution of major issues, on the understanding that the Israeli government would resolve these through further negotiations.

But nearly 12 years after the agreement was made, two key unresolved areas remain: Israel’s refusal to guarantee the Church access to courts in order to defend religious property and the thorny matter of municipal property taxes that the Church cannot afford because much of her wealth comes from charitable donations. According to United Nations regulations, taxes should not, in any case, be levied against the Church. Israel does not recognize such an exemption.

Bishop Skylstad made clear that failure to implement these aspects of the agreement impinged on religious freedom and violated international law. He also implied that the friendship of the United States toward Israel would be at stake should the Israeli government fail to fulfill its obligations to the Holy See, pointing out that “U.S. intervention in this matter has been critical.”

The United States played a major role in encouraging resumption of negotiations in July 2004.

Father David Maria Jaeger, an Israeli Franciscan and a key figure in drawing up the Fundamental Agreement, said the letter “is an important assurance that the Catholic Church of the United States will continue to follow closely and supportively the effort of the Catholic Church in Israel to gain legal security.” He added, “This continued support is crucial to the success of the entire enterprise.”

Speaking to the Register Jan. 28, Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See, Oded Ben-Hur, said the bishop’s initiative was “highly appreciated” because of Israel’s wish to ensure that the Catholic community in the United States was kept fully informed of the situation. He also said negotiations are now “on the fast track” and that representatives from both states have met in Jerusalem five or six times in the past year, compared to once or twice a year in previous years.

“Not only is there no lack of commitment,” the ambassador went on, “but there is also an ever-growing concern and awareness in our government of the necessity to bring negotiations to a successful ending, to cooperate closely with the Catholic communities in Israel and to increase the allocation of budgets for their well-being and prosperity.”

Furthermore, according to the apostolic nuncio to Israel, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the scheduled January negotiations were not unilaterally cancelled, but “postponed on a mutual agreement because we were waiting for the new minister of the interior to be installed.”

Even so, Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, believes that “it is totally appropriate for Bishop Skylstad to urge that Israel resolve the matters speedily.” He added that the “Israeli government has been lamentably slow in fulfilling its commitment in this regard to resolve the issues in good faith.”

Indeed, as months pass without an agreement, optimistic statements by Israeli officials are beginning to sound like empty promises. Some commentators are even beginning to wonder whether such comments, often made by Israeli diplomats, are unrealistically optimistic or whether the diplomats are being misled by their superiors in Jerusalem.

In response, Ben-Hur said, “I follow closely and keep in touch with those involved in negotiations on the Israeli side.” He added that, in spite of “built-in” constraints such as security concerns and ministerial changes, the Israeli government is “determined to proceed and overcome the remaining difficulties.”

Rabbi Rosen also does not doubt the extent of the Israeli government’s desire to see matters resolved. “I can assure you from the highest Israeli authority possible that there is unqualified commitment precisely to doing so,” he said. “This is not because of outside pressure, but because this prime minister (Ariel Sharon) is actually the first PM since (Shimon) Peres to take this issue seriously.”

Archbishop Sambi said he was optimistic about the next round of negotiations but “would like to see the facts, and these will only become apparent after the meeting.” Ben-Hur said there are only a few remaining issues. The problem of property taxes has been “narrowed down to the exemption of monasteries, the great bulk of which have already been resolved,” he said. On the issue of due process, “new ideas and solutions are being examined, to be later discussed at the February talks.”

The ambassador gave “realistic” assurances that a resolution of all the issues involved will be reached “well before the end of the year.”

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.