January/February 2000

Melchior: If pope wants our respect, he must respect us

By David Zev Harris and Haim Shapiro

JERUSALEM (February 17) - Israel should welcome Pope John Paul II's visit here next month despite his recent agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization, MK Michael Melchior said yesterday.

At the same time, Melchior added, it should be made absolutely clear to him that Israel is very unhappy with his denouncement of unilateral decisions on Jerusalem as "morally and legally unacceptable."

"If he wants us to listen to him and respect him, he must act likewise towards us," said Melchior, minister with responsibility for Diaspora affairs.

The agreement, signed in Rome, during a visit of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, was angrily received in Jerusalem.

Foreign Ministry Director-General Eytan Bentsur called Papal Nuncio Monsignor Pietro Sambi to his office in order to receive clarifications and to relay Israel's view.

The agreement, in general, and the section referring to Jerusalem, in particular, are unacceptable, Bentsur said, according to a ministry statement. Criticism in the agreement of a lack of freedom in the Old City was rejected by Bentsur. At no point in history has there been as much freedom as today, he told Sambi. Not only is the content of the document disturbing but also its timing, just before the papal visit.

Bentsur said Israel welcomes the pope's visit but hopes he will not bring with him preconceived notions about the outcome of talks between Israel and the PA.

Following their meeting, Sambi told reporters the agreement has apparently not been fully understood in Israel. It is not a political statement, but one about the religious nature of Jerusalem and its importance to three major religions, he said.

The Foreign Ministry will spend the next few days checking whether the agreement between the Holy See and the Palestinians conflicts with existing agreements and understandings between the Vatican and Jerusalem.

Meantime, Seymour Reich, the head of the International Jewish Council on Inter-Religious Consultations, described the language used in the agreement between the Holy See and the Palestinians as "offensive," especially since it came while preparations were being made for the papal visit.

But, he said, he wasn't surprised. "Every time they move forward in Vatican-Jewish or Vatican-Israel relations, they manage to take a step backwards that sets back relations between us," Reich said.

In a similar reaction, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement expressing concern about the agreement, saying that the Vatican was engaged in unhelpful interference in the bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on issues such as the peace process and the status of Jerusalem.

"We would hope that the Vatican would attempt to play a role supportive of the peace process. Instead, this document demonstrates unhelpful interference into the ongoing bilateral negotiations," said Abraham Foxman, ADL national director.

Foxman added that the agreement gave no indication that Israel and the Palestinians had been engaged in intensive bilateral negotiations since 1993, it made no mention of Israel, of security, or of the need for normalized relations between Israelis and Palestinians. He pointed out that in calling for "international guarantees" on Jerusalem, the document ignored the final-status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, which are to include the status of Jerusalem.

©Jerusalem Post

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