Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) - The Delegation of the State of Israel, expected at the Vatican on Thursday 29 March, has decided not to come, and has communicated this only a very few days before the scheduled appointment. The news was soon widely known among media people in Rome, who cover the Vatican, since several key journalists had been invited to meet the Head of the Israeli Delegation on Thursday evening, following the negotiations in the Vatican, and have now had to be told by the Israeli Authorities that Israel had decided not to send the Delegation.
In the absence so far of any official comment by the Holy See, it is not yet possible to evaluate the gravity of the damage inflicted on the bilateral relationship by this unusual move, which follows a long list of appointments made and later cancelled or ignored by the Israeli side - although so far only at a "lower" level than this one.
The meeting, now cancelled by Israel, of the full teams of negotiators, which was to be held in the Vatican on Thursday 29 March - the first one at this level in five years - was to be yet another attempt to conclude the negotiating round that began as far back as 11 March 1999. In the meantime the negotiations continued, sporadically, at the "working level."
As is well known, their purpose is to work out a "comprehensive agreement" on all tax and property matters, which would give the Church in Israel legal and fiscal security. In practical terms, the Catholic Church wishes to see re-confirmed the historic tax exemptions that she already possessed at the time that Israel came into being, in 1948. Likewise the Church in Israel hopes for the return of some confiscated ecclesiastical properties, for example, the church-shrine in Caesarea, which was confiscated in the 1950's and later razed to the ground. In particular too, it is important for the security of Catholic sacred places owned by the Church, to ensure that any legal disputes concerning them should be decided by the courts, according to law ("due process") and never, as is possible today, by politicians, in purely discretionary fashion.
In the Church in Israel there was much expectation for the results of the meeting, which Israel has now abruptly cancelled, and the prospect of the first meeting of the "Plenary" of the negotiating teams, after a five year interval was cause for cautious optimism, which has now been replaced by just one more disappointment.
Indeed, a positive outcome to the talks could have strengthened confidence in the wisdom of the Church's choice to go ahead and sign the 1993 "Fundamental Agreement" with the State of Israel , and to establish with it full diplomatic relations only months later, even while leaving matters of decisive importance to later negotiations and agreements.
The rationale for that decision was described to AsiaNews (before learning of the unilateral cancellation) by the Franciscan jurist, Fr. David-Maria A. Jaeger, expert on Church-State relations in Israel: "It was believed best to to go ahead, and demonstrate, right at the start, with magnanimity, the Church's own good faith, and with it, unreserved trust in the other Party to carry out its own obligations under international law. There was the hope-full expectation that magnanimity and trust on the part of the Church would call forth corresponding trust and magnanimity on the part of the other side. It was a courageously generous decision by the Servant of God Pope John Paul II, and I, for my part, continue to pray and hope that he will be proved to have been right all along". Asked by AsiaNews for his views on the unilateral cancellation, Father Jaeger limited himself to expressing "incredulity" and "pain," and declined to comment any further.