Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the new pope to be known as Benedictus XVI, will continue the positive relations toward Israel and the Jews that characterized the papacy of Pope John Paul II, say senior Jewish figures who are integrally involved in relations with the Vatican, and know Ratzinger personally.

"He has a profound commitment to good relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, and an unquestionable commitment to Israel's well-being," says Rabbi David Rosen, who was a key figure in the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican in 1993. "From a narrow Jewish and Israeli perspective, it is good news for the Jews."

Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, says Ratzinger "was the man who provided the theological underpinnings for Pope John Paul II's decision to open relations with Israel. He solved the real problem that existed - the 2,000-year-old theological question. He was the one who had the keys to open that lock. In the last 20 years he has changed the 2,000-year history of relations between Jews and Christianity. I believe he will continue the policies of John Paul II with regard to relations with the Jews and Israel."

Shortly after the establishment of diplomatic ties, Ratzinger visited Israel to deliver the keynote address at a Jewish-Christian conference. "He wanted to express his personal support for Vatican-Israel relations, and for the advance of Jewish-Catholic relations," recalls Rosen, who chaired the event.

Ratzinger, who made several quiet visits to Israel before the establishment of diplomatic ties, wrote the introduction to what Rosen calls the "most important" document on Christian-Jewish relations to come out of the Pontifical Biblical Studies Commission, the Vatican body that focuses on biblical studies. The document, which was issued under Ratzinger's authority, deals with the central place of the Jewish people and of religious Jewish texts in Christian teaching.

In the document, Ratzinger seeks to tackle the Jews' refusal to accept Jesus as the messiah and Judaism's insistence that the messiah has not yet come.

"He argued that this position is also part of the divine plan," explains Rosen, who now heads the American Jewish Committee's Interreligious Affairs department, "and the fact Jews don't accept Jesus must not be seen as an act of rejecting God, but as part of God's plan to remind the world that peace and salvation for all humanity has not yet come. This is amazing. He took something that has been the source of major condemnation of Judaism and the Jewish people down the ages and twisted it into something of a positive theological nature."

Rosen recalls meeting Ratzinger in Assisi in 2002, at the Day of Prayer for Peace in the World declared by Pope John Paul II, shortly after the document was published. "When I told him it was an extremely positive document in relation to Judaism, his face burst into a big smile."

Rosen believes that Ratzinger's German background has shaped his attitude toward Israel and the Jews. "It is a significant factor in his understanding of the evil and danger of anti-Semitism," he says. "It is certainly a factor in his positive commitment to Catholic-Jewish relations. He is conscious of the burden of history."

Singer, who is also chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), dismisses fears that have been expressed in some quarters - in Israel and in the Jewish world - over Ratzinger's membership, as a boy, in the Hitler Youth. "At that time, every child was forced to be a member of the Hitler Youth," says Singer, who recently met Ratzinger at the funeral for Pope John Paul II.

Both Singer and Rosen believe that Ratzinger's conservative approach to Catholicism will not impact on his relations with the Jews. "If this election is good news for the Jews, for those hoping for a more open Christianity or a more relativist theology, this is bad news," says Rosen.

Adds Singer: "He is interested in creating a Catholicism that is relevant in the 21st century, but it will be a Catholicism that is conservative. But this has no impact on relations with the Jews."