07/08/2004, 00.00
vatican - israel

By 2004, full relations between Israel and Vatican: ambassador gives his word

by Bernardo Cervellera

In an exclusive interview with AsiaNews, His Excellency Oded Ben Hur explains the reasons for his optimism

Rome (AsiaNews) - Negotiations between Israel and the Vatican will reach a positive conclusion "by the end of 2004"; talks that took place July 5 in Jerusalem were not productive "because it was still too early", as explained by the Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See, Mr. Oded Ben Hur, in an interview with AsiaNews.  He says he is "profoundly optimistic" about the process: "Technical difficulties exist, as do resistances, but we hope the accords will be concluded by the end of 2004, at the most in early 2005".  Ambassador Ben Hur's optimism is based on a particular certainty: "that the government [lead by Sharon, Editor's note] is absolutely determined to conclude the accords by the end of the year".

The Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and Israel, signed 10 years ago, was to lead to series of concordats that were to ensure the rights and freedom of the Church in Israeli territory.  In all these years, however, Israel omitted to enact the Fundamental Agreement under state law.

On August 2003, without explanation, Israel withdrew its delegation entirely from negotiations when the two parties were working on provisions protecting Church properties and tax exemptions.

On July 5, negotiations began again, but the meeting, after only 3 hours, was adjourned to the beginning of September.  Various observers complained that, after a year's wait, the meeting ended without producing any results.  Ambassador Ben Hur specifies that "the meeting of July 5 should not be judged negatively.  That date was part of the protocol and showed that relations are going ahead after last year's stall."

Ecclesiastical sources had told AsiaNews that the meeting was to be "a fully-fledged negotiation and not a pro forma meeting".  Ambassador Ben Hur remains nevertheless optimistic: "There is no doubt that, with the next appointment of September 5th, there will be much more substance on the table.  The July 5th meeting produced nothing because it was still too early.  It was only last May that we revived Israeli/Holy See relations.

Beh Hur explains that last May he brought together various Vatican and Israeli figures to convince them to continue discussions.  Among those invited were representatives of the Foreign and Finance Ministries, along with Avigdor Itzhaki and Illan Cohen, respectively Sharon's out-going and in-coming chief of staff.  "The difference between last August [2003, when negotiations stalled, Editor's note] and now is the involvement of the Sharon government.  To have contributed to bringing about this more direct involvement is a source of satisfaction for me".  Pressure from the United States was indeed a factor behind the July 5th meeting, which he defines as "an occasion to break the ice", adding that "however, of importance was also all the work carried out behind the scenes carried out by Israeli and Vatican figures together with me."

The Israeli diplomat says that the process must be viewed with "great patience".  And he justifies the slow pace of work in these past months: difficulties in finding legal terms; the need to review traditional laws and modernize them, to find ways to "enhance relations with the Catholic community", without diminishing "caution toward the various religions in Jerusalem".   In any case, Ben Hur affirms that "the representatives of various Ministries have done enough preparatory work by now on legal infrastructure," thanks to which "the accord will not only be ratified, but implemented."

Yet there are even deeper roots to the reasons for such a slow pace.  According to Ambassador Ben Hur, in these past years, Israel had given little value to these accords with the Vatican, explaining that he has been seeking for some time "a greater appreciation for the importance of Israel/Vatican relations.  In Israel, people do not realize how things are, they think that relations exist and take them for granted.  Instead, we cannot ignore the Catholic world which makes up at least one fifth of humanity.  On the other hand, it gets difficult to draw the Israeli government's attention when there are daily conflicts, the fight against terrorism, relations with the United States and Europe, economic problems.  Israel is a small state and we do not have a lot of personnel to assign to such studies."

As proof of the Israeli governments interest toward Christians, Ambassador Ben Hur recalls that last February, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon launched a full study on the importance of Christians and on relations between Israel and the Christian world, creating a committee which consists of academic and political figures.  "It is a gradual process," Ben Hur says, "this decision was perhaps not appreciated by all Israeli, but it is going forward.  I'm counting on a bit of patience in limiting criticism and being more open and positive.

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