ROME, Dec. 15 (JTA) — Israeli President Moshe Katsav’s visit to Italy included a groundbreaking audience with the pope and a controversy over Italy’s ties to the Palestinian Authority. Katsav flew back to Israel last Friday after hailing Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as a friend and promising Pope John Paul II that the army would pull out of Bethlehem for Christmas if there were no warnings of terror attacks being planned there.
But on Sunday, the Israeli army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya´alon, told the Cabinet that because of continued terror warnings the army will allow holiday celebrations to be held, but does not plan to withdraw from the city.
Katsav met with the pope at the Vatican on Dec. 12. The Vatican reiterated that it supports both an Israeli and a Palestinian state and urged Israel to allow “free access” during Christmas to Bethlehem, the Palestinian-ruled town revered as the birthplace of Jesus.
Israeli troops reoccupied Bethlehem three weeks ago after a suicide bomber from the city killed 11 Israelis in Jerusalem.
An Israeli Embassy statement said Katsav pledged that the army would “do everything possible to enable pilgrims to celebrate the Christmas holiday as appropriate.”
Israeli officials announced, however, that for the second consecutive year they would not allow Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to attend Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem because of ongoing Palestinian terrorism against Israel.
The Israeli Embassy called Katsav’s papal audience “warm and cordial.” It was the first time an Israeli president had visited the Holy See.
“God bless you, God bless Israel,” the pope told Katsav during their 15-minute meeting.
The embassy said the frail, 82-year-old pope said more than once that he felt the meeting could be a “turning point” in relations that could lead to a deepening of ties.
“It was a historic event in its way, but it was shadowed by the uneasiness that the Holy See feels for the policies of the Sharon government,” longtime Vatican watcher Marco Politi wrote in La Repubblica newspaper. “The pope hopes for a change.”
The day before his papal audience, Katsav held “truthful, honest and friendly” talks with Berlusconi, whom he hailed as a “great friend of Israel.”
At an emotional meeting with Roman Jews in the city’s Great Synagogue on Dec. 11, Katsav said his meeting with Berlusconi “had revived great hopes.” Berlusconi, he said, “has a vision for the Middle East.”
But remarks attributed to Berlusconi by an Israeli spokesperson, who attended the hourlong meeting with Katsav, triggered a brief political controversy.
According to the spokespeson, Berlusconi told Katsav that Italy cut contacts with Arafat and other Palestinian Authority representatives after a suicide bombing killed 29 people at a Passover seder in Netanya in March.
“Europe’s economic assistance to the Palestinians should be unconditional, but Europe’s political assistance should be made conditional on the end of all Palestinian terrorism against Israel,” he quoted Berlusconi as saying.
Palestinian officials denied that contacts with Italy had been cut. The Palestinian representative in Rome noted that he and a Palestinian Authority delegation had met senior Italian officials in Rome in October.
Italian politicians said such a break in relations would represent “turning Italy’s position upside down.”
The Israeli Embassy later revised the report of Berlusconi’s remarks, saying he had said that Italy “has avoided in recent months meeting Palestinian representatives involved in acts of terrorism.”