Israel-vatican Accord Noted for Its Gains, Shortcomings

The mutual diplomatic recognition reached by Israel and the Vatican nearly three years ago has been more valuable outside the borders of the Jewish state than inside, according to representatives of both governments.

The Fundamental Agreement Between the Holy See and the State of Israel was signed Dec. 30, 1993, and brought to a symbolic close centuries of Catholic animus toward Jews.

Although the Catholic Church’s attitude toward Jews and Judaism changed dramatically after the Second Vatican Council ended in 1965, the Catholic state’s posture toward Israel remained a negative one.

The Vatican, seat of the Catholic Church and an independent government as well, had de facto recognized the reality of the Jewish state, but it had refused to extend to Israel formal diplomatic recognition.

A luncheon and panel discussion held Nov. 7 at the Israeli Embassy here to mark the third anniversary of the new relationship with the Vatican featured three speakers: Shlomo Gur, one of the Israeli diplomats who negotiated the agreement with the Vatican; Father Drew Christiansen, a senior representative of the United States Catholic Conference; and Rabbi David Rosen, who participated in the 1993 talks as the Anti-Defamation League’s co-liaison to the Vatican.

Achieving formal recognition from the Vatican was important to the State of Israel, but it was even more important to Jews outside Israel, particularly those in overwhelmingly Catholic countries, where the acknowledgement of Jewish legitimacy has helped curb lingering Catholic anti-Jewish sentiment, said Rosen, an Orthodox rabbi who also represents the ADL in Jerusalem.

Vatican recognition has also bolstered Israel’s standing in the international community.

“It has had great importance for our international relations, not just with neighboring countries, but with many other countries which look to the Vatican as an inspiration and to take the lead in things,” said Gur, who now serves as the deputy chief of mission at the embassy here.

For both Israel and the Holy See, the negotiations created a new model of political deal-making, one that has been employed both in the Israel- Palestinian peace talks and in the Vatican’s discussions with other Middle Eastern governments, said Gur and Christiansen.

The talks took two forms: the formal process and what Gur termed a “back channel” dialogue, which enabled him and a Catholic diplomat to engage each other creatively.

“It was like we were in the kitchen, where we were totally informal, without any kind of record and with total deniability. The exchanges were very, very open,” said Gur. Later, things would “move into the dining room, where things were considered, familiarized and accepted.”

For all its value outside Israel, implementation of the accords remains a problem inside its borders, Christiansen said.

He said few people even in the Israeli government know what the accord entails.

And even though the 15-article accord specifically names the right of the Catholic Church to carry out its charitable functions, that right is impeded when Israel closes its borders to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza because of security concerns, he said.

In addition, Catholics who applied for a license to open a radio station in the Upper Galilee were turned down, contravening the accord’s provision that guarantees the church its own media, he said.

According to Rosen, the Vatican has accrued a little-known benefit from its accord with Israel.

With Israelis and Palestinians completely disagreeing on who will ultimately control Jerusalem, its fate remains something of a question mark to the international community.

No Islamic government would be able to guarantee non-Muslims, including Catholics, complete freedom of religious expression or permanent control over their own holy sites, Rosen said.

But the Vatican did win these assurances in the accord with Israel, creating a legal precedent for the church that could influence the future even if there is Muslim rule in part of Jerusalem, he said.

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