11/18/2005, 00.00
ISRAEL – VATICAN

Katzav's promises to the Pope to be tested soon

Arieh Cohen
The next round of negotiations to implement the agreements between the Holy See and Israel is set for November 24. Israeli President is said to have committed himself to accelerating their pace. Father Jaeger says he is optimistic about the outcome. Benedict XVI will visit Jerusalem only after the negotiations are concluded. The head of Israel's delegation is in Washington to urge the US not to back the Vatican.

Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) – The audience granted by Pope Benedict XVI to Israel's President Moshe Katzav, at the Vatican, on 17 November, has been the subject of a great deal of interest, and has served to confirm that the relationship is at a crossroads. The Press Office of the Holy See emphasised that "particular attention" was given at the meeting to "the [need for] implementation" of the two treaties already signed and ratified by Israel with the Holy See. As is well known, twelve years after signing the Fundamental Agreement, Israel has not yet initiated the procedures for writing it into Israeli law; last year, the Government actually told the Supreme Court that it did not consider itself bound by it at all, and has declined to modify this position in spite of diplomatic and other protests.

The implementation of the Fundamental Agreement requires, among other things, the conclusion of a further treaty that will confirm the fiscal and property rights acquired to the Church before the establishment of the State of Israel. Sporadic negotiations on this have been going on since the beginning of 1999, without result, and the Vatican, the United States, and Catholic episcopates throughout the world have been calling for these negotiations to be intensified, accelerated and brought to conclusion.

Thus, according to a dispatch from Agence France-Presse, the Holy See has told the Israelis that a Papal visit to Israel—in response to President Katzav's courteous invitation—would only be appropriate after Israel has implemented the Fundamental Agreement (1993) and the "Legal Personality Agreement" (1997), and has allowed the completion of the all-important further Agreement now being negotiated. Agence France-Presse has been for years, so it is believed, the preferred "vehicle" of certain Vatican offices for news that it is not opportune to announce officially.

On the same day that President Katzav was in the Vatican, Israel's top negotiator with the Holy See, Mr. Nimrod Barkan, the head the of intelligence department at the Foreign Ministry, was in Washington.

The diplomat, who is also the intelligence chief at the foreign ministry, was meeting with American officials and Catholic personalities, in an attempt to persuade them that he is trying very hard to reach agreement with the Holy See's own negotiators on the serious questions that remain unresolved between the Parties.

As the Washington correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports, the purpose of Israeli diplomacy there is to get the U.S. to cease pressing Israel to show greater commitment to the talks. The correspondent speaks of the decisive role of the U.S. in inducing Israel to resume the negotiations in 2004 (after suddenly abandoning them on 28 August 2003), and of the continuing interest that both the U.S. Catholic Church and the U.S. Government take in the state of the negotiations.

Sources of AsiaNews in Washington (confirming a Haaretz report) say that, in his meetings, the Israeli government representative shared with his interlocutors details of his version of the talks, but also surprised them by alleging that the Vatican is demanding "extra-territorial" status for the Church in Israel. A "bizarre idea," says a Vatican negotiator, "pure invention."

The well known legal expert on the whole matter, Franciscan Father David M. Jaeger, when asked by AsiaNews whether, on the morrow of the Audience to the President, he is optimistic, comments: "Yes, of course, I am optimistic. According to the press, President Katzav promised publicly to accelerate the negotiations, and the visit itself underscores the importance that both Parties attribute to their treaties as the basis and structure of the whole relationship. It was an important visit, an expression of mutual friendly good will, and it has raised hopes for its fruits to be seen quite soon."

Others though allow themselves a measure of scepticism. They recall Israel's foreign minister's visit to the Vatican in July 2003, when the minister declared that he expected to return "within three months" to sign the new Agreement. Yet his very next step was to withdraw his delegation from the negotiations (on 28 August that year)....

But Father Jaeger has no patience with such sceptics, and is determined to concentrate on the positive signs: "The past is the past. We must trust that the President's visit inaugurates a new era."

Such optimism will soon be put to the test. The Holy See's next negotiating session with Israel is set for 24 November.

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