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Vatican Appears to Be Rethinking Diplomatic Relations with Israel

The Vatican appears to be reconsidering its absence of diplomatic relations with Israel because it is concerned that it may not have a voice in the Middle East peace process, according to several observers of Catholic-Jewish relations.

But they say that since diplomatic positions evolve gradually at the Vatican, it would be premature to talk about a date when the Holy See might be ready to establish formal relations with the Jewish state.

Nevertheless, evidence of incremental change in the Vatican’s position on Israel can be seen in two developments, observers say.

One is the planned visit to Israel next week of New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor, who is scheduled to meet with President Chaim Herzog, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek.

The other is a discussion of the Vatican’s role in the Middle East that took place at a conference of Catholic scholars in Bari, Italy, on Dec. 13-14.

O’Connor, who will also visit Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and possibly Syria, has long been one of the most outspoken supporters in the Catholic hierarchy of the Vatican establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.

It is considered significant that the New York archbishop is bookending his trip with visits to Rome beforehand and afterward.

THIS TIME NO VATICAN RESTRAINTS

Before leaving New York, O’Connor said he would be available to meet with any Israeli leaders, religious or civic, who wanted to do so.

The cardinal accepted an invitation from President Herzog before he left New York and has since made arrangements to meet with the prime minister and Mayor Kollek in their offices during his visit.

If he does so, that will be a change from his last visit to Israel in 1987, when he was forced at the last minute to cancel meetings with the same officials, which he had scheduled without prior Vatican approval. O’Connor had to make his embarrassed apologies at a meeting in Herzog’s official residence.

At the time, “someone in the Vatican informed the apostolic delegate in Jerusalem to call off all the meetings O’Connor had planned without telling him,” according to Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, who was then chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations.

It was “an indication of how determined some in the Vatican were to undermine any success on that trip,” he said.

This time, O’Connor is going to Israel without any apparent restraints from the Vatican.

“There are a number of significant signs that the Vatican is searching for appropriate ways to improve diplomatic relations with Israel that, in time, can lead to the establishment of full diplomatic relations,” said Tanenbaum.

“O’Connor’s trip makes clear the change in atmosphere,” he said.

Another indication is the meeting of Catholic scholars in Bari, Italy, which issued a communique stating that the Vatican must be included in any Middle East negotiations involving the status of Jerusalem.

If the issue is left to negotiations only between Israel and the Arab states, Jews and Moslems will be represented while Christians will not, said the scholars, who are experts on international law, canon law and political science.

The Vatican, they said, “has the right to participate in any ‘regional’ issue compatible with its proper role.”

‘THERE’S A NEW WIND BLOWING’

The communique also defended the Vatican’s position that Jerusalem needs an internationally guaranteed statute to protect it as a city open to Christians, Jews and Moslems.

There is “frustration and concern” among Catholics that if the Middle East peace talks proceed, “an equitable settlement may be made on the question of Jerusalem excluding them, minimizing the role of the Vatican,” according to Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee.

“There’s a new wind blowing from the Tiber,” he said. “We are seeing the beginning of something going on here. It’s always subtle with the Vatican, but there’s a different sense than there was even four or five months ago.”

“Israel has made clear that the Vatican” cannot participate fully in the Middle East peace process unless they have full diplomatic relations,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress and a spokesperson for Edgar Bronfman, the current chairman of IJCIC, which officially represents world Jewry in dealings with the Vatican.

Vatican officials “are now going through a very serious re-examination, with the view to salvage something constructive so they can be players in the Middle East,” said Tanenbaum.

“They are not a player now and need to find a way to get to the negotiating table, or the fate of Jerusalem will be decided without them,” he said. “The Vatican now realizes it needs diplomatic relations with Israel far more than Israel needs diplomatic relations with the Vatican.”

ISRAELIS DON’T WANT COMPLICATIONS

Israel, which has not directly pursued relations with the Vatican recently, would not necessarily find this the best time for the Vatican to make its move, Tanenbaum said.

“Now that the Israelis are involved with serious negotiations with the Palestinians,” he said, “they do not want more complications, which could become serious obstacles” to peace.

The Vatican remains the only state in Europe not to have formal diplomatic relations with Israel, noted Moshe Gilboa, the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s adviser on relations with non-Jews.

“Israel is definitely interested and willing to have diplomatic relations with all sovereign countries in the world, and the Vatican is one of them,” he said in an interview from Jerusalem.

And “we hope anyone wants to join the Middle East peace talks wants to it for positive reasons,” he added.

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