Rome turns towards Jerusalem: The Vatican's imminent recognition of Israel purges an ancient enmity, says Chaim Bermant

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THE VATICAN confirmed yesterday that it would sign an agreement with Israel by the end of this year, granting the Jewish state official recognition. The signing of the so-called 'fundamental agreement' - the fruit of 17 months of negotiations that kept pace with the Middle East peace talks - will be a historic event. The accord between Israel and the Palestinians in September was described as a miracle, but it touched on enmities which go back only a century. The enmity between Rome and Jerusalem goes back 2,000 years.

Jews have always prayed for a return to Zion, but that was no more than a pious aspiration until the last years of the 19th century, when the outbreak of the Russian pogroms suggested that anti-Semitism would not come to an end with the spread of enlightenment. Jews decided to take their fate into their own hands by recovering their ancient homeland.

Zionism was thus born largely out of Christian persecution, and it might be thought that the Vatican, if only as an act of contrition, would be among the first to recognise the Jewish state. Instead it has been among the last, well after Russia and its allies, who used to be implacable enemies of Israel, and three months after the Palestinians.

The Vatican's failure to recognise Israel caused resentment both within Israel and without, for it seemed to suggest that in some perverse way the Church could not quite forgive the Jews for the many wrongs it had inflicted upon them and that, far from purging ancient conflicts, it seemed anxious to perpetuate them.

The facts of the situation are, of course, more complicated than that.

When Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, was received in audience by Pope Pius X in 1904, he was told: 'We cannot prevent the Jews going to Jerusalem, but we could never sanction it. The ground of Jerusalem, if it were not always sacred, has been sanctified by the life of Jesus Christ. As head of the Church, I cannot answer you otherwise. The Jews have not recognised our Lord; therefore we cannot recognise the Jewish people.'

Something of this doctrine persisted over the years, but in the Sixties, at the behest of Pope John XXIII, the Second Vatican Council modified the attitude of the Church to Jews as 'a perfidious race' and removed the main theological obstacles to recognition.

Other obstacles, however, remained. The Vatican was particularly concerned about the fate of the holy places. When the United Nations proposed the partition of Palestine between Jews and Arabs in 1947, the Vatican favoured the internationalisation of Jerusalem.

The proposal occasioned some bitterness. If Jerusalem was sacred to the Church, it was infinitely more sacred to Jews, for it lay at the heart of Zionist longing. In the event the city was divided between Israel and Jordan. In 1967, after the Six Day war, all the holy places came under Jewish control. Israel took immediate steps to preserve their sanctity and assure access to them; and any serious apprehensions that Rome may have had about them were laid to rest.

Finally, there remained the most vexed issue of all. Many Arabs happen to be Christians and the Vatican has a natural concern for their interests, which became more pronounced after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza. It took a strongly pro-Arab line during Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and in the same year, Yasser Arafat was received in audience by the Pope.

In 1986 the Pope paid a historic visit to the Rome Synagogue and spoke of Jews as Christianity's beloved elder brothers. 'As we all well know,' he declared, 'the relationship of brotherhood that could and should typify relations between the Church and Jewry has . . . throughout our common history been tragically perverted into one of internecine enmity and oppression.'

The Vatican had seemed to be edging towards recognition of Israel, but once the intifada erupted it edged back.

The Pope, as Stalin once suggested, hasn't got many divisions, but has immense moral authority. Israel, for its part, has one of the most powerful armies in the world, and given its situation, needs it. But even secular Jews like to think that Israel should, in the words of the Prophets, be 'a light unto the nations', and Ahad Ha'am, the principal philosopher of Zionism, argued that the Jewish state would not justify its existence unless it became a spiritual centre. Although Israel in recent years has fallen well short of such teachings, the aspiration remains, and thus, for all the past conflicts and present differences, it feels a certain affinity with the Church.

Successive foreign ministers have tried to draw Israel closer to the Vatican. Shimon Peres has been particularly determined to do so. He set up a special negotiating team after the Madrid peace conference in late 1991, and once Rabin shook hands with Arafat in September, the way ahead was clear.

Rabbis have hitherto stayed clear of the negotiations, for the Jews are few and Christians are many and they are nervous of their embrace, but Rabbi Yisrael Lau, the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, flew out to Rome in September to put the final touch to the talks and give them his blessing.

In 1964 Pope Paul VI became the first pontiff to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He spent only one day in Israel and was at pains to point out that it was a private visit, although he was received by the president and the prime minister, who presented him a medallion with the message: 'Love thy neighbour as thyself'.

Pope John Paul II has, in the course of his wanderings, been to almost every country on earth, and his failure to visit the cradle of Christianity may therefore seem strange. He is now likely to repair this omission early next year.

When the Pope visited the Rome synagogue in 1986, Sir Sigmund Sternberg, a leading member of the Anglo-Jewish community (and a papal knight) said to him: 'If only such a visit had been made 1,000 years ago, Jewish history, and perhaps world history, might not have been the same.'

A thousand years, in the words of the Psalms, 'are but as yesterday' in the sight of God. They can't be much less than that in the eyes of the Church, but Rome and Jerusalem have been finally reconciled and the next millennium may prove to be less tragic than the last one.

(Photograph omitted)