Beyond Official Protest, Israel Mum on Pope’s Meeting with Waldheim

Israel, having lodged a formal protest against the meeting of Austrian President Kurt Waldheim with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican scheduled for Thursday morning, is withholding further comment pending the meeting’s outcome.

Media reports here Wednesday said Israeli ambassadors in Europe have been advised to moderate their criticism for now. But an outraged Knesset would not be silent. Ezer Weizman, who is acting Foreign Minister in the absence of Shimon Peres, presently visiting Western Europe, had a difficult time discouraging motions calling on the Knesset to demand that the Pope cancel his audience with Waldheim.

Weizman, responding for the government, said Israel would ask the Vatican for an official explanation of the invitation to Waldheim. He praised the Pope for his efforts to further Jewish-Catholic dialogue and for the solemn respect he has always shown to the memory of the Holocaust.

But Weizman lashed out at Waldheim, who has been accused of complicity in Nazi atrocities. He recalled his own dim view of the Austrian diplomat who served as United Nations Secretary General in the 1970′s when Weizman was Israel’s Defense Minister. “Without knowing what we now know, my feelings then fully reflected our present knowledge,” Weizman said.

The newspaper Haaretz, citing Foreign Ministry sources, suggested Wednesday that Waldheim, a practicing Catholic, might confess his war crimes to the Pope and seek absolution. But that idea seemed far-fetched to Knesset members across the political spectrum who denounced the upcoming Vatican encounter.

Shulamit Aloni of the Citizens Rights Movement (CRM) said the meeting was hardly that of a penitent with his confessor, but rather of one head of state with another. It is a political encounter, she said.

Geula Cohen of the Tehiya Party said the Pope’s invitation to Waldheim showed that the Pope is very fallible and that the Holy See still has not freed itself from its ancient hatred of the Jews. “For Jews there was a connection between the cross and the swastika,” she said.

Shimon Ben-Shlomo of the Shas Party said the Pope has broken the worldwide taboo against Waldheim. Avner Sciaki of the National Religious Party said he was grieved by the absence of protest from other countries.

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