05/05/2006, 00.00
ISRAEL – VATICAN
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Palestinian territories, Iran, the Church: tough challenges for the Olmert government

by Arieh Cohen

The new Israeli government has won the confidence of the Knesset, but it has its work cut out. Poverty, Israel's borders and Iran top the agenda. Support for its plans in the Palestinian territories remains lukewarm at home and in the US. Catholics want to see drawn-out negotiations with the Vatican concluded.

Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) - Having received the vote of confidence of 65 out of 120 members of Israel's unicameral legislature, the Knesset, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his new government are now in office. They face formidable tasks. The exponential growth in the number of the poor, even the very poor, in this State, which had been founded on egalitarian, socialist ideals, had moved practically all parties in the recent general election to promise decisive measures to alleviate their plight. In this regard, there is a certain disappointment with the Government even before it has actually begun to formulate and carry out concrete policies. In a national television interview, the Head of State, President Moshe Katzav,  said he too was perplexed as to the depth on the new Government's commitment in this regard, while hoping for the best.

At the centre of Mr. Olmert's plans is his oft announced promise to define Israel's borders within the next four years - unilaterally. His plan is to "gather in" Israel's West Bank settlers on the western side of the "Wall of Separation", which runs through the Occupied Territory, to dismantle the settlements east of the Wall, but to keep Israel's military control over the entire territory. He promised to do so entirely unilaterally, if the Palestinians did not accept his terms for peace, which are formulated in such a way that their acceptance is extremely unlikely. As things stand, he may not have a parliamentary majority for such an initiative, since even his second largest coalition partner, the fundamentalist party Shas, opposes it, as it opposed all previous Israeli plans that involved even partial dismantling of the settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It is also unclear as yet to what extent the United States will agree to support a plan, which involves, in addition to dismantling some settlements, also the incorporation of many other settlements, and significant parts of the Occupied Territories, in Israel proper, through a unilateral move, which contradicts the United Nations Charter. The Charter excludes the acquisition of territory by force. With considerable political opposition at home, and without U.S. political support and massive financing by the U.S., Mr. Olmert's ambitious plans may face insurmountable difficulties.

Other than the "gathering in" plans for the West Bank, and the stated commitment to the "War on Poverty", the new Israeli Government is also challenged by the danger of Iran's potential nuclear armaments. For now, Israel is content to let the U.S. and the Europeans take the lead in trying to stop Iran's nuclear aspirations, but if the international pressure should fail, Israel will be facing perhaps the most difficult decision of its 58 year history, whether to go it alone in taking military measures to stop Iran - with unforeseeable consequences on many fronts - or simply to trust to its own - never admitted - nuclear deterrent, perhaps making it public. Everyone, in Israel and elsewhere, hopes that the moment for such a decision may never come.

Christians and all others who hold dear Israeli democracy must be worried by the return to government of the fundamentalist Shas party, while breathing a sigh of relief that Mr. Olmert steadfastly denied Shas the Ministry of the Interior. That Ministry is responsible for liaising between the Government and the local Christian communities, as well as for issuing - - or denying - visas to Church personnel, among others.

For Catholics, it is imperative that the new Government renew the negotiations with the Holy See on safeguarding Church property, specifically sacred places, and on confirming the Church's historic tax exemptions, which are a condition of possibility for the Church to maintain its presence in the Holy Land.  These negotiations have been going on for many years now, with periodic interruptions by Israel, and must now be brought to conclusion, if the hopes for normal relations roused by the 1993 Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel are to be justified.

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