Bad Blood

The conflict between Israel and the Vatican may be over, but its root causes were not solved.

Adi Schwartz
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Adi Schwartz

What exactly happened in the clash between the Vatican and Israel last month, which culminated two weeks ago with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon writing a letter to the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano? From the Israeli perspective, the conflict appears simple enough and is due to the fact that the Pope did not condemn the terror attack in Netanya on July 12, which killed five. But from the Vatican's point of view, the affair is far more complex and touches on the slow progress in the negotiations between the two states regarding a final agreement formalizing the relations between them, which has been going on for a number of years now. In any case, Vatican experts say the affair and the strident tones on both sides are a clear indication of the bad blood between Israel and the Holy See.

The affair began on July 24, in Pope Benedict XVI's weekly Angelus address. At the end of his remarks, the pope condemned the "abominable terrorist attacks causing death, destruction and suffering in Egypt, Turkey, Iraq and Great Britain." The next day, the Israeli Foreign Ministry summoned the Vatican envoy in Israel, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, to express "protest," and released a statement saying the pope's omission of the terror attack in Netanya "cries out to the heavens," and cannot be interpreted other than as "granting legitimacy to terrorist attacks on Jews."

The Vatican spokesmen responded that very evening: "Concerning the Israeli reaction to the fact that the Holy Father, in his Angelus of Sunday July 24, did not also mention Israel alongside other countries, it should be noted that Benedict XVI's words specifically referred to the attacks of `these days.' It is surprising that the Holy Father's intention should have been thus groundlessly misinterpreted, it being well-known that in numerous interventions the Church, the Magisterium of the Supreme Pontiffs, and most recently Pope Benedict XVI, have condemned all forms of terrorism, from whatever side it comes and against whomsoever it is directed. Obviously, the serious attack in Netanya two weeks ago, to which the Israeli comments refer, also falls under the general and unreserved condemnation of terrorism."

The exchange did not end there, and in fact, gained further momentum. On June 26, Nimrod Barkan, director of the Foreign Ministry's World Jewish Affairs Bureau and head of the Israeli delegation to negotiations with the Vatican, gave an interview to the Jerusalem Post in which he complained that for years, Israel had "quietly" protested in Rome the previous Pope John Paul II's failure to condemn attacks in Israel.

"Since they never paid a price for the lack of condemnation," he said, "they continued to do it. But if they understand we won't let this pass quietly, I assume they will change their ways."

Barkan also asked, "What could be worse than implying that it is okay to kill Jews?"


In the wake of the interview, the Vatican spokesmen released a particularly acerbic statement on July 28, in which they termed the Israeli claims a "pretext." "It was not always possible with every attack against Israel to make an immediate public condemnation, and this for diverse reasons, among others the fact that the attacks against Israel of the time were followed by immediate Israeli reactions that were not always compatible with international norms," the declaration said.

The declaration went on to say that the claims against the previous pope were "contrary to historic truth," and "can please only those who intend to foment animosity and conflict." In any case, it was noted, "Just as the Government of Israel understandably does not allow others to dictate what it should say, in the same way the Holy See cannot allow itself to take instructions and directives from another authority."

These exchanges, which were the subject of a considerable debate in the Italian and Catholic press, and were described as one of the worst crises in Israeli-Vatican relations in the past 40 years, appeared, even in their early stages, to various Church figures in Israel as being related to the negotiations between the two states.

Custodian of the Holy Land Pierbattista Pizzaballa told Haaretz last week that this is "an exceptionally serious crisis that no one expected." He said that both sides took things out of proportion and that the "sudden intensity of the remarks is indicative that there is something not quite right in the relationship."

Immediately after Vatican envoy Sambi was summoned to the Foreign Ministry, "Church sources in Jerusalem" were quoted in Italy as saying that this was a "smokescreen intended to conceal the Foreign Ministry decision to abandon the negotiations with the Holy See." According to the sources, the meeting slated for the negotiations teams on July 25 was canceled.

A few days later, Franciscan Father Dr. David A. Jaeger, the legal consultant to the Holy See delegation to the negotiations with Israel, gave an interview to the Catholic Internet site Asia News with comments on the term "pretext" that appeared in the Vatican statement. "A minor functionary in the Israeli Foreign Ministry who had not done his homework for a meeting with the delegation of the Holy See set for July 25 and who desperately needed a last-moment excuse to cancel the meeting ... nothing more than that," he explained. Jaeger maintained that the Israeli delegates had been causing difficulties regarding the negotiations for a long time and that a number of previous meetings were canceled, one after another, for various reasons.

A matter of negotiations

The fact that, as far as the Vatican is concerned, the entire matter is very closely related to the negotiations, is indicated by a letter Sodano, whose function corresponds to that of prime minister, sent to Sharon in early August. In the letter, Sodano did not relate at all to the issue of the terror attack, and instead discussed the negotiations extensively.

The Fundamental Agreement, which established relations between Israel and the Vatican, was signed in December 1993. Since then, ambassadors have been exchanged and John Paul II made his celebrated visit to the Holy Land, but a final agreement to formalize relations has not yet been signed. Jaeger told Haaretz last week that the negotiations, which began in March 1999, were supposed to have been completed within two years, but this has not happened. On the agenda, he says, are the Church's demands on matters of property and taxes. According to Jaeger, the Church is demanding the return of assets it lost since the establishment of the state due to expropriation and destruction. Involved are buildings and lands that Israel has declared public property, or assets that private owners have taken over.

Another matter that the Church is demanding be dealt with is the change in its legal status. It is currently subject to the Mandate legislation of 1924, which determined that the courts have no authority to debate conflicts of a religious nature.

Such conflicts are directed to the executive branch of government. Regarding taxation, the Vatican wants to draw up a single document containing all the taxation rules and regulations as they relate to the Church's assets. In fact, this would mean exempting the Church from taxation on a great deal of assets, which according to Jaeger is anchored in international law and in the United Nations declaration of November 29, 1947.

There is consensus on both sides regarding the fact that there is no agreement; regarding the reason, unsurprisingly, there is no consensus. Officials in Jerusalem dismissed Jaeger's claim that the affair is a pretext to cancel the meeting between the negotiating teams ("utter nonsense," one said). Besides, they note, in the past few months, Israel offered a "package deal" to the Vatican to end the negotiations, but the Holy See rejected it. In fact, the problem as far as Israel is concerned is the Vatican's demand that the tax exemption not be dependent on future changes in Israeli tax law. The matter, they say in Jerusalem, is less an economic one ("Millions are involved," they say) and more a matter of principle. Israel views this demand as the creation of an exterritorial status for the Catholic Church in Israel, and it is not prepared to agree to that.

On August 23, the Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See, Oded Ben-Hur, conveyed a letter from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Cardinal Sodano. The letter said that the pope is a true friend of Israel, and expressed regret at the pope not mentioning the terror attack in Netanya. In it, the prime minister pledged to revitalize the stalled talks. At the meeting, Sodano told Ben-Hur that the omission of Israel from the list of countries was "an unintentional oversight." Both men agreed that the remarks made on both sides had been excessive and they declared that the matter was behind them. Israel's two chief rabbis will meet with the pope in mid-September as planned, and in November, President Moshe Katzav is slated to meet with the pope in Rome.

Treating the symptoms

Nevertheless, the question remains of what led to the strident tones that accompanied the entire affair. Israel maintains that in order to combat the phenomenon of terror, the distinction made by many regarding international terror and local Palestinian terror must be stopped. But Lorenzo Cremonesi, a correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere della Sera who has participated in the coverage of the affair from Jerusalem, is convinced that the pope's declaration in the Angelus was only the catalyst. "The atmosphere between the two sides is poisoned. The Vatican is convinced that Israel is not fulfilling its commitments. In the Vatican, they think that `the Israelis not only don't want to move ahead, they don't care.' There are always other, more important subjects on the agenda, for example the disengagement from Gaza. In the Vatican, they feel that the Israeli side is ignoring them, and they are angry." In his view, the Vatican feels that Israel got what it wanted in 1993 (recognition of the State of Israel) and since then, has refused to move ahead on the negotiations.

Luigi Accattoli, Corriere della Sera's expert on the Vatican, believes that the blame for the recent imbroglio lies with the officials on both sides, rather than with the leaders. "There is bad blood between Israel and the Vatican," he says. "Both regimes dislike one another. The Vatican did not recognize Israel for a long time and Israel did not want to recognize the unique status of the Vatican. There is a long history of alienation and lack of friendship between the two sides. Both sides are still remote from one another, and the entire matter stems from that. The two worlds do not understand one another."



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