In the summer of 1992, when I was starting out as deputy foreign minister, I found myself engaged in two sets of negotiations, each of which could have been a lifetime enterprise. The first was an attempt to tie together all the strings to make possible the opening of the Oslo process, without the knowledge of either the prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, or the foreign minister, Shimon Peres. The second was a move that had been authorized and approved, aimed at reaching an agreement with the Vatican.
The two processes took place in parallel, and eventually also a vital link was made between them, but conducting them required that I divide my attention, and focus on two very different spheres. I was well acquainted with the problems we were to deal with at Oslo, as well as the possible solutions. The negotiations with the Holy See, however, were something of a different nature entirely, and included subjects that I had hardly ever dealt with in the past.
The negotiations with the Vatican had begun in the wake of the Madrid peace conference of 1991, when the prime minister was Yitzhak Shamir and the foreign minister David Levy, with the director general of the Foreign Ministry being Yossi Hadas. They were conducted from our side by a group of competent people most of whom were from outside the ministry. These people had accumulated a great deal of academic expertise on Christianity, and some of them had been involved in interfaith meetings. The Vatican sent a much more homogenous delegation that was headed by Monsignor Claudio Celli, the deputy foreign minister, and which included a number of senior clerics.
The aim of the Oslo talks was, from my point of view, to serve as a back channel for the official talks that were being conducted at that time in Washington and which had floundered. The intention was for Israelis and Palestinians to reach a series of agreements on an intermediate arrangement that could be placed on the table of the official negotiators. The objective of the talks with the Vatican was much less clear. In general terms, the intention was to create a formal framework for relations that had until then been informal. Until almost the last minute, we did not know whether the Holy See was planning to establish diplomatic ties with Israel at that point, or whether it was interested only in arriving at an intermediate stage, during which the sides would come to agreements on a series of subjects in anticipation of a much more far-reaching move, namely, the establishment of full diplomatic relations.
To a certain extent, this was like dancing with the pope. The talks were formal and cautious, and although the contacts were not secret, their content was not published. We knew that every word had significance, we understood that this was an extremely important matter, and we were fearful lest we do something or say a word that would be interpreted differently from what we intended. The very fact that, on the other side of the table were people who were wearing black robes also created a distance that did not exist in our talks with the Palestinians. All of a sudden, the talks with the Palestinians seemed much simpler, and far less formal, and there did not seem to be such an extremely important need to choose one's words carefully.
Every meeting with the Vatican delegation began with a t?te-?-t?te meeting between Celli and myself, after which we used to join those at the negotiating table, we briefed each other about what had happened since our last meeting at the negotiation table and then continued for a day or two of talks together with the regular negotiating teams.
The negotiations that took place were over a basic document, with the idea being that when this was signed, we would continue to negotiate a much more detailed document. The basic paper dealt with the issue of the Catholic Church's status in Israel, its rights in the sphere of education and its rights to certain tax exemptions on religious artifacts, which was to be a continuation of the document according to which the church had operated in the Holy Land since the days of the Turks in the last quarter of the 19th century. The question of the holy places was raised during the talks but the details were left for a more detailed agreement that was to come later. The issue of the history of relations between the Jews and the church was not raised at all during the negotiations, but was mentioned during the dinners we used to have, together with scholars specializing in the subject.
One of the greatest stumbling blocks was created by the name of the document. The Vatican wanted it to be called a "fundamental agreement," while the Israeli side was determined that it should be called a "basic agreement." I decided to look into it, to find out what the legal difference was between the two terms, but I drew a blank. The meeting at which I expressed my agreement to calling the document by the name the Vatican wanted was, for some reason, a breakthrough that made the continuation of negotiations much smoother. The mutual talks with Celli became less and less formal and therefore much more interesting. He spoke about his daily routine, about the enjoyment he got from his hobby of cooking, about the dilemmas facing the Vatican with various issues of foreign affairs, and I spoke to him about how I viewed the negotiations between us, as someone who had been born in Tel Aviv, had not traveled abroad until a late age, and had not met with priests and other members of the clergy.
My first conversation with a member of the Church was with Brother Daniel - born Oswald Rufeisen, a Carmelite monk from the Stella Maris monastery in Haifa who had been born a Jew and wished to get Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return - as part of an interview for the newspaper Davar in the early 1970s. I told Celli that, since I was a secular person who distanced himself from religious ritual, I considered it a special privilege to conduct such historic negotiations with him, and that I could understand what the implications of its results could mean for so many believers. From Celli's point of view, it was extremely important to stress that these were negotiations between two states and not between two religions, and it was convenient for me to accept that, even though it was clear that the attempt to draw a boundary between the two definitions was not so simple in the special cases of these two states.
As our talks with the Vatican progressed, the question of whether their conclusion would find expression in the establishment of diplomatic relations became more pertinent. This is where back-channel talks began, and these advanced us considerably. One of those in the Vatican's delegation was Dr. David Jaeger, a priest who was an expert in Catholic law. Jaeger had grown up in Israel and studied at the Orthodox Zeitlin school in Tel Aviv; he later converted to Christianity and rose in the clerical hierarchy. It was no coincidence that he had been made part of the delegation, and I am sure that he had a great deal of interest in the success of the negotiations.
We set up a secret channel between Jaeger and Shlomo Gur, my diplomatic adviser and confidant, who accompanied me both in the conducting of the Oslo process and in the talks with the Vatican. This channel helped us to understand the order of priorities and made it possible to skip a number of unnecessary stages in the official negotiations.
At the same time, there was another channel between the Vatican's foreign secretary, archbishop Jean Louis Touran, and myself. In the second half of 1993, we held a secret and lengthy meeting in New York at the residence of the head of the Vatican's delegation there. The discussion went on into the night and was also attended by Gur. That was when I raised the fact that Israel desired to have the talks culminate in diplomatic relations. He was not prepared to commit himself on that point but I understood that I had not surprised him and that the question was being considered. At this stage, there were still a number of technical disagreements between the delegations, but we were very close to overcoming them.
In the interim, the world heard about the Oslo process and the agreement that had been signed between Peres and Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala) in Norway after secret and informal talks that were conducted by Dr. Yair Hirschfeld and Dr. Ron Pundak, and secret but formal talks that were conducted with the knowledge of the prime minister and foreign minister by Uri Savir and attorney Yoel Singer. This report blew new wind into the sails of the talks with the Vatican, and we understood that the great advances that had been made with the Palestinians would make it easier for the pope to decide on a more far-reaching move than, perhaps, he had thought about originally.
The Oslo Accord was signed on September 13, and we aimed at completing our negotiations with the Vatican by the end of that year. The tension increased as did the number of analyses of the situation.
Two weeks before the agreement with the Vatican was signed, however, Haaretz published an extensive interview with Dr. Yitzhak Sergio Minerbi, a former Foreign Ministry official and a great expert on the Vatican, in which he stated categorically that there was no chance the Vatican would agree to establish diplomatic relations with Israel before the problem of Jerusalem was solved in a final-status agreement between us and the Palestinians. When I read this, I said to myself: Perhaps he knows what we, as novices in this sphere, do not know. Perhaps our positive feelings are completely misguided.
Those were weeks of heavy tension, but at their end, my good friend Celli made it clear to me that the decision had been made and that we would sign an agreement to establish diplomatic relations. It was a moving event. At the end of December 1993, we rented a plane that took our delegation to the Vatican in Rome, where we had a tour and held our final discussion. Following that, the Catholic delegation joined us and we returned to Jerusalem together. The priests hurried to their hotel to change their black robes for more festive vestments in which the color purple was prominent, and then arrived at the meeting hall in the old Foreign Ministry building to exchange speeches, to drink a toast and to sign the official documents in the presence of television cameras from all over the world.
That was a moment of goodwill, and perhaps also one of rare coincidence, exploiting the back wind of the Oslo agreement in order to promote the agreement with the Vatican, that we used to correct the longstanding injustice of a lack of diplomatic relations between the Jewish state and the Vatican. The articles that appeared in the Jewish and general press throughout the world - which attributed to the diplomatic ties a much more far-reaching significance than that of a mere diplomatic act - were not mistaken.
Dr. Yossi Beilin is president of Beilink: Business Foreign Affairs, an international consulting firm.