The draft of an economic agreement between Israel and the Vatican contains no distinction between sovereign Israel and the territories occupied in 1967. The lack of a preamble containing such a distinction is at the center of heightened tension between Palestinian Christian denominations and the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Vatican.
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Palestinian sources told Haaretz that the agreement meant indirect recognition of Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem and of the imposition of Israeli law in part of the West Bank.
France, which has special standing as custodian of holy Christian sites and Christian communities, is also said to be concerned at the apparent latent recognition of the annexation and the economic implications for the communities, and particularly its Christian institutions in the country and the people who are part of them.
However, a well-informed source told Haaretz “there is nothing in the agreement to harm the rights of the Palestinians,” and that the agreement was made with the sovereign State of Israel in its internationally recognized identity, and therefore there was no need for a clarifying preamble.
The Bilateral Permanent Working Commission between the Holy See and the State of Israel is to meet in Rome on Monday and Tuesday. They are to continue talks that took place in Jerusalem last week on matters of disagreement.
Negotiations toward an agreement on the fiscal status of Catholic institutions in Israel have been underway for 13 years, 11 more than the original two years allocated in what is known as the “fundamental agreement.”The signing of that accord by Israel and the Vatican on December 30, 1993, led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel.
Over the past few months, NGOs and members of various Christian denominations in Israel have begun to receive details about the draft agreement, which has been presented to them as a lapse and a failure by the Vatican. Haaretz was told that the people who informed Palestinian Christians and NGOs of their concerns preferred not to approach the Palestinian Authority immediately because they did not believe the PA could act on its own in this diplomatic and legal realm.
Members of the Christian community in Jerusalem and the West Bank have held a number of emergency meetings recently and have contacted the Vatican to make clear that the agreement under discussion is not merely a fiscal and a technical agreement, and that a lack of distinction between occupied territory and Israeli territory could have severe implications.
The legal agreement, known as the “Legal Personality Agreement” was signed on November 10, 1997, but was never ratified by Israel.
Meetings on fiscal issues began in 1999 and have still not concluded. They relate to property rights, actions involving property by church bodies, and Issues of taxation and tax exemption. The parties decided to exclude a list, known as “Schedule 1,” of institutions on both sides of the Green Line from the text of that agreement, with regard to which they felt they would not be able to resolve differences soon. Among the sites and institutions on the list are those in which ownership and possession are in dispute, such as properties that Israel has expropriated or whose owners were declared absentees and the Church wants to take possession of again, or sites that Israel has declared open to the public and the Church believes should remain in the private sphere.
A draft of the agreement, dated January 25, 2012 which Haaretz has obtained, does appear to address Israeli law in a general way, without relating to or alluding to Israel’s status as an occupying power according to international law. That is also the case with regard to sites in East Jerusalem. A Palestinian lawyer who reflects the position of the Palestinian Christian denominations with regard to the agreement now being formulated told Haaretz that in bilateral agreements with Israel there is a clause defining what is meant by “Israel” from which a distinction clearly emerges between the two sides of the Green Line. For example, the bilateral agreement for the avoidance of double taxation between Israel and Switzerland, a clarification states: “The term Israel means the ‘State of Israel,’ and when used in a geographical sense, the term ‘Israel’ includes its continental shelf and other maritime areas over which it exercises sovereign rights and jurisdiction according to international law” (that is, as an occupying power). Accordingly, the Palestinian lawyer said, the term “Israeli law” without any kind of codicil or restriction, is a dangerous precedent and implies recognition of the annexation of East Jerusalem and Israeli civil rule over areas of the West Bank (where a number of the sites on Schedule 1 are located).
A well-informed source rejected this interpretation and told Haaretz that the agreement contains no geographical reference to any institution it mentions and there are no negotiations underway over the status of institutions in East Jerusalem. He said the agreement recognizes that “the Vatican has some obligations but [also] some immunities because of the special character of the Church and religion.”
A Foreign Ministry official who is not familiar with the draft said that the Vatican’s position is clear and is known to the ministry, and has not changed: The Vatican does not recognize Israeli sovereignty beyond the Green Line.
Ekemeleddin Ihsanoglu, the secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which has 57 member-countries, and who was informed of concerns over the agreement, wrote a letter to Archbishop Dominque Mamberti, who is the secretary for relations with states of the Holy See.
The archbishop answered in early May that “the eventual agreement will not represent a change in the position of the Holy See.”
Mamberti also wrote: “The Church, with particular attention to fiscal questions, is asking the State of Israel to treat her institutions in a fair manner, wherever the State of Israel exercised its authority de facto without taking into consideration or determining whether it does so as a sovereign state or as an occupying state, thus without entering into the political aspect of the question.”
Mamberti wrote that the Church remains “extraneous to all merely temporal or political conflictsunless the contending parties or the international institutions make concordant appeal to its mission of peace.”
This is the response the members of the Christian denominations in the country heard, which only increased their concerns over what they see as erosion of the Church's position.
A number of Palestinian Christians have complained that the Church and the spiritual authority of the Vatican should have taken into consideration the special situation of Christians under Israeli occupation – and it has not done so. As a state, they say, the Vatican is obligated to international law, and it did not take this into account in formulating the accord with Israel.
The draft to be discussed over the next few days has undergone changes since January 2012, but Palestinian sources believe that these changes are not dramatic. In fact, the lack of distinction between the two sides of the Green Line was already in the legal agreement (which was not ratified).
Rabbi David Rosen, the international director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee, who worked for the establishment of diplomatic ties, viewed precisely this as an achievement for Israel. In an article published in 1999, he wrote “the Catholic Church thereby not only reaffirmed its recognition of the sovereignty of the Jewish people in its historic homeland, but also registered and placed its institutions under Israel’s legal authority and protection [including its]institutions in East Jerusalem.