Israel: Rome's old problem: The Vatican's first steps towards full recognition of Israel are belated and half-hearted, argues Charles Richards

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The Independent Online
The announcement that the Vatican and Israel are to set up a commission to prepare for the establishment of full diplomatic relations is a long overdue move to address a historical anomaly that still rankles with Israel and Jewish communities around the world.

The Vatican started moving several months ago for a number of reasons. Principal among these was the desire not to be left on the sidelines during any peace process. Spokesmen insist that the initiative began before the moves currently underway to find a settlement to the Arab-Israeli dispute and the Palestinian issue - in other words, during the tenure of the previous prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir.

The Vatican's sense of exclusion from regional developments was made more acute by the US-backed peace talks that began in Madrid. It no longer seemed to make sense to hold back from full diplomatic relations with Israel when both Syria - the Arab state most hostile to Israel - and Palestinians endorsed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation had started to talk with Israel.

For decades the Vatican has deployed a series of arguments, each more specious that the previous one, for not according Israel full diplomatic relations. First, it was said that there could be no formal ties as long as the borders of Israel were not fixed. (How many other countries does the Holy See have relations with that have border or territorial disputes? Plenty.) Or, such diplomatic recognition could jeopardise the precarious position of Christian minorities in the Arab world. Or, it wanted guarantees of international protection of the Holy Places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

In 1947, the Vatican had supported the United Nations partition plan for Palestine which stipulated that Jerusalem (including Bethlehem) be a corpus separatum, an international enclave, possibly under Vatican control. Quite why the Vatican did not follow the lead of the international community, which also supported the partition plan, and establish full diplomatic relations has never been satisfactorily explained.

Many Jews suspect that the reason was as much theological as political or diplomatic, that the Catholic Church had not really absolved Jews of the collective guilt for killing Jesus Christ, and that it could not really countenance the establishment of a new Israel in the Holy Land. Furthermore, many Jews have never come to terms with the silence of Pope Pius XII during the Nazi massacre of the Jews. The silence was explained as a way to avoid jeopardising their lives even more, if that were possible; and to protect Jews within Vatican property (which he did).

Those old prejudices, which had fuelled centuries of anti-Semitism in Europe, were in theory overturned by the historic document Nostra Aetate, drawn up by the Second Vatican Council in 1965. This opened a new chapter in relations between Jews and Catholics. For the first time, the Catholic Church stated that the Jewish people were not responsible for killing Christ. The sins of the fathers were not to be visited upon their children.

However, actions by the Catholic Church have not helped Jews overcome their distrust of Catholic intentions. A meeting between the Pope and Kurt Waldheim, the then president of Austria (accused of a Nazi past); the row over the establishment of a Carmelite convent on the site of Auschwitz; and the repeated charge of deicide (made most recently in April by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the head of the Italian Catholic Church) have further been seen as lack of Catholic sensitivity to Jewish feelings. The absence of full diplomatic links between two states, however, was an obstacle to Jewish-Christian rapprochement. For many, if not most Jews, the state of Israel is central to their Jewish identity.

The suggestion that Israel's indecisive boundaries are a bar to de jure recognition is clearly spurious, but what of the suggestion that the Vatican held back on behalf of Christians in Arab countries? If it has been championing Christian communities in the Arab world through these decades that has not led to any notable improvement of their lot. It only requires a look at Lebanon to see how little the Vatican did to stop the bloodshed, initiated often by the Maronites, a Uniat Church with Rome. The largest Christian minority in the Middle East, the Copts of Egypt, is almost exclusively Orthodox rather than Catholic.

In the Holy Land itself, that is, Israel and the occupied West Bank, Christians are a confessional minority within an Arab population that is itself a minority. Out of a combined population in the land under Israeli control of nearly six million, Christians total about 130,000, of whom 35,000 are Roman Catholics (known as Latin Christians) and another 40,000 are Greek Catholics or Melchites.

The main dangers to the Christian communities in the Arab world have little to do with the Vatican's diplomatic relations with Israel. More Arab Christians have left to go the Americas and Australia over the years in search of a better life for economic reasons, as well as more recently because of the rising tide of militant Islam.

The Vatican's 45-year hesitation has been about de jure recognition; it has always insisted that it fully recognised the state of Israel de facto. Golda Meir was the first Israeli leader to be received by a Pope. Other Israeli leaders have been received in the Vatican. Pope Paul VI made his first foreign trip to Jerusalem, when it was a divided city partly under Jordanian control, and went to both halves.

The Vatican is represented in Jerusalem by an apostolic delegate - a status below that of Papal nuncio - who is meant to deal only with Church matters; similarly the main Western countries have consuls-general there, who are not accredited to the State of Israel, and have a complex diplomatic status. Most members of the international community have their embassies in Tel Aviv, because they do not recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. When the Holy See finally establishes full diplomatic relations with Israel it is likely to follow that example.

In diplomatic terms, Israel had always insisted it would not discuss bilateral issues until full diplomatic relations were established. However, in the event, it has made that concession. Vatican spokesmen emphasised that the commission would at first deal only with technical bilateral issues on the way the Church and its institutions function in Israel and the occupied territories.

On the agenda are three main issues: the establishment of a new legal status for Church-run schools; formalising the status of priests, some of whom have to renew their visas every three months; and the granting of tax-free status to all Church institutions. However the commission's task is political as much as technical. And both the Vatican and Israel have as models the joint commissions they each set up with Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe before full diplomatic relations were established.

Not all those with an intimate knowledge of the issue are overly impressed by the Vatican's very belated act, or by how little it has actually moved. One of the sternest critics of the Vatican's policy and the attitude of the Catholic Church is Sergio Minerbi. This Italian-born former senior diplomat in the Israeli foreign service has made a study of relations between Israel and the Vatican. He called the joint commission a 'wishy washy solution to appease the Jews . . . The real question is, why shouldn't they establish relations? The unusual thing is that they should have done so so late. And they still don't have full diplomatic relations. Relations should have been normalised 40 years ago.'

(Photograph omitted)