ROME (Jul. 29)
Israel and the Vatican have taken a major step toward normalizing relations by announcing the formation of a “permanent working commission” aimed at establishing full diplomatic ties between the two states.
The commission marks the first institutionalized relationship between the Holy See and Jerusalem. Its formation was announced Wednesday after a morning-long meeting in Rome involving senior officials from both sides.
The two groups issued a joint statement saying their goal is “to study and define together subjects of mutual interest with the aim of achieving a normalization of relations.”
Yosef Hadass, director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, who headed the Israeli side at the talks, said the papal delegation, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, had stated explicitly that “normalizing” meant the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the two states.
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro Valls told reporters at a news conference in Vatican City that it is “the first clear step of an official nature that can be looked on with optimism.”
From Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres hailed the development, saying “it should be regarded as important.”
‘A HISTORIC DAY’
Avi Pazner, Israel’s ambassador to Italy, who participated in the meeting, was jubilant.
“It’s a great day, a historic day,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It’s a turning point in Vatican-Israel relations, and we’re very satisfied with the talks,” he said.
Neither Catholic nor Israeli participants in the meeting would speculate on how long the process of normalizing relations might take, but according to Pazner, the full bilateral commission will reconvene in November in Jerusalem.
In the meantime, smaller groups will hold working sessions on various facets of the process, he said.
Jews have long maintained that the Vatican must establish full and normal relations with Israel. But until recently, the Vatican held that certain conditions would have to be met by Israel, conditions which Jews considered unrealistic.
One longstanding plank in the Vatican’s policy called for the “internationalization” of Jerusalem, which would have divided control among the various parties staking a claim to the city, including Catholics.
The Vatican has also said that it would not establish diplomatic relations with Israel as long as the country’s borders are “unclear.”
But in the last year or so, portents of change have been observed.
Highly-placed Catholic leaders have indicated that Rome was interested in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.
At a meeting in Baltimore last May, the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews joined with the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations in calling for the Vatican to normalize relations.
The Vatican has also dropped its call for the internationalization of Jerusalem and instead wants assurances from Israel that access to all holy sites in Jerusalem will be protected.
The change of government in Israel and expected progress in the peace process are said to have influenced the Vatican’s decision to take a concrete step toward diplomatic relations now. Observers in Israel said the Vatican would not want the peace process to address the issue of Jerusalem without the Holy See having any input.
ISRAEL NOW ‘INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNIZED’
Ambassador Pazner also credited sympathy generated for the Jewish state during last year’s Persian Gulf War and the fact that “Israel is now internationally recognized” as reasons for the Vatican’s change of heart.
“The timing did not depend on us,” he said. “We worked on this for many months and I met with many Vatican dignitaries, including the Pope.”
Israel has “been ready to establish relations. The Vatican wasn’t. Now they are ready to contemplate this step,” Pazner said.
The establishment of the joint commission was also hailed by American Jewish leaders, who emphasized its significance for Catholic-Jewish relations worldwide.
According to Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, the Vatican realized that it has lost influence over the peace process by not normalizing relations with Israel.
He said that normalization of relations will likely have impact beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem and Rome.
It is “a sign of peace sent by Rome and Jerusalem to the world. Though this should have been done many years ago, it has special spiritual meaning,” Klenicki said.
“It’s finally a recognition of the meaning of Judaism in our days — that we are not only a community in the world, but that there is also a state in the promised land,” he added.
WILL BENEFIT CATHOLIC-JEWISH RELATIONS
In addition to affecting governments, this development, once brought to fruition, will enable the Catholic-Jewish relationship to mature, said Edgar Bronfman, chair of IJCIC, which represents world Jewry in dialogue with the Vatican.
“The normalization of relations between the Vatican and Israel is a necessary prerequisite for complete normalization in relations between the Vatican and the Jewish people as a whole,” said Bronfman.
The development was also welcomed by the American Jewish Committee. “The Vatican’s formal acknowledgement of Israel’s membership in the international family of nations would represent a major contribution to positive Catholic-Jewish relations throughout the world,” said AJCommittee President Alfred Moses.
(JTA staff writer Debra Nussbaum Cohen in New York and JTA correspondents Ruth E. Gruber in Rome and David Landau in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)