Backgrounder:
ISRAEL AND ROME   Part 2

From the Six Day War to our time

(Part one appeared in the  April 1998 Digest  This link should open in a new browser window. Simply close it to return here.)

The return in 1967 of the entire city of Jerusalem to Jewish rule triggered a crisis of faith for Roman Catholics, just as the rebirth of Israel had for Muslims. For whereas the latter believe that territory brought into subjection to Allah cannot revert to Jewish (or Christian) rule, Roman Catholics for centuries held as doctrine that the Jews were expelled from their land and condemned to wander the face of the earth for rejecting Jesus. More to the point, they were not supposed to be able to return to their land until they repented and accepted Him as Messiah.

LESS THAN A fortnight after the Six Day War, the Knesset affirmed the existing Israeli policy of sensitivity towards Christian and Muslim sentiments when it passed the "Protection of Holy Places Act", enshrining in law the pledges made before. Faced with the new reality, the focus of Vatican concern shifted from the city itself to the sacred sites it contained. In his 1968 Christmas message, Pope Paul VI expressed the Vatican's desire to "obtain international guarantees for the holy shrines".

Subsequently, the Vatican let it be known it would be satisfied should the holy places be granted a "special status, guaranteed by international law". Israel took Rome's modified position to signify its realisation (if not recognition) of Jerusalem's de facto reunification. Cordial relations were maintained during the 1970s and, mostly, through the '80s as well, strained only periodically by Vatican statements Israel perceived as biased in favour of the Palestinian Arabs.

This seemingly mutually satisfactory state of affairs might have continued uninterrupted but for the rise to power of Israel's Labour party under Yitzhak Rabin in June 1992. Within weeks of the election, Israel and the Vatican announced the establishment of a bilateral permanent working commission in what was widely seen as a serious move towards forging diplomatic relations.

An Israeli Religious Affairs Ministry official maintained at the time that while Jerusalem was in no great hurry to establish ties, the Holy See was eager "because it wants a channel in order to look out for its interests when Jerusalem comes up as an issue at the negotiating table". For their part, Vatican officials were at pains to deny any link between their talks with Israel and the peace process.

Nonetheless, in December of that year, even as the clandestine meetings that would birth the Oslo Process were underway, Jerusalem's Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah, asserted that there was a link between the Israel-PLO and Israel-Rome discussions "so that we reach a point in which peace will be in the land and [we] will have solutions and normal relations between the Holy See and Israel and between Palestinians and the Arab countries and Israel as well".

In a written memo to foreign correspondents, the Patriarch said that the Vatican-Israel talks "are a part of other or similar talks with Palestinians and Jordanians, and represent a new effort for peace in the Holy Land".

The Oslo link

The following September, in the same week that Israeli Foreign Minister and chief Oslo architect Shimon Peres signed the Declaration of Principles with Yasser Arafat in Washington, the Israel-Vatican commission held a special meeting in Israel.

Eighteen months later, it emerged in Israeli press reports that Peres had, at that time, offered the Vatican "spiritual guardianship" over the Old City of Jerusalem. The reports were based on a message transmitted to Peres by Israel's envoy to the Vatican. Around the same time, an Italian newspaper reported that a secret agreement had been reached in which the Rabin government offered to declare Jerusalem's Old City extraterritorial, and award it a status similar to that of Vatican City in Rome. Israel's Foreign Ministry denied both reports.

Three months later, on December 30 1993, the Israel-Vatican Agreement inaugurating official bilateral diplomatic ties was signed by Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin in a locality designated as Jerusalem (the word "Israel" omitted). Within six months the first Israeli ambassador to the Vatican had taken up his post.

And it was during that year that Pope John Paul made the astonishing statement that went further than ever before in sup-porting the legitimacy of the State of Israel: "It must be under-stood that Jews, who for 2,000 years were dispersed among the nations of the world, had decided to return to the land of their ancestors," he said. "This is their right."

For the first time since 1948 a modus vivendi had apparently been agreed upon whereby the Catholic Church would recognise Israel, and Israel would give the Vatican its long-coveted prize: unrestricted sovereignty over the most cherished shrines in Christendom.

And the future?

Since Labour's 1996 defeat by the Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu, the focus has largely moved off Israel-Vatican relations and remains fixed on the stalled Oslo process. Even so, Netanyahu has visited with the Pope and, as reported in the April edition of the Digest, John Paul has stepped up the pace of his "process of puri-fication" from the Church's anti-Semitic past and aims to lead a global declaration of "repen-tance" in the year 2000.

Is the Vatican sincere in its professed motive of trying to bring about healing in Jewish-Catholic relations? Or could it conceivably be preparing to lay claim to an offer made as part of the Oslo master-plan--the glittering prize of Jerusalem?

Time holds the answer. What is clear is that relations between Israel and the Roman Catholic Church have progressed further in the last six years than in the near century that preceded them. This fact alone should make Christian supporters of Israel sit up and take note.


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