12/13/2006, 00.00
VATICAN - ISRAEL
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Holy See-Israel: painstaking resumption of negotiations

by Bernardo Cervellera
An interview-analysis with Oded Ben Hur, Israeli ambassador to the Vatican on the reasons for delays and difficulties. At the root of it all is Israel’s refusal to recognize that the Fundamental Agreement is an international treaty.

Rome (AsiaNews) – Deliberations of the Holy See-Israel bilateral commission are set to resume today in Jerusalem after being stalled for a long time. The resumption, permitted by the Olmert government, has raised hopes even in the Vatican that the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel that dates back to the distant 1993, may finally be implemented.

The two delegations are meeting at the headquarters of the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry to continue negotiations aimed at finalising the so-called “economic” agreement, stipulated by the Fundamental Agreement since 1993 to safeguard the fiscal status of the Church in Israel and to protect holy places and other church properties. The parties are also planning a “plenary” session early next year (in January or February) at the Vatican to resolve outstanding differences and to finalise the treaty that should without a doubt be enshrined in Israeli legislation.

AsiaNews asked the Honorable Oded Ben Hur, Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, why the process has been riddled with delays and difficulties.

The ambassador said the difficulties could be attributed to the fact that the Catholic Church believes these accords should be considered as international treaties and absorbed as such into Israeli law. In Israel, there is unwillingness to accept these accords as a proper international treaty whose norms are not liable to unilateral changes by the Israeli legislator.  For Israel, it seems, there can no international treaties that could condition the exercise of national legislative power.

Hon. Ben Hur, weren’t the rights acquired by the Church part of the state of affairs of the Holy Land inherited by Israel (and that UN had asked be preserved)?

Yes, certainly, they were thus before the birth of the state of Israel and before the establishment of diplomatic ties. Now we are trying to find a way to formalize matters, a way that recognizes these ancient rights while coexisting with Israeli law without problems. However, what the Church is asking for today is contrary to Israeli law. Ultimately, it is in the interests of the Vatican itself not to do something that tomorrow could be rejected or cancelled by parliament. It would be an invitation to failure.

There are difficulties for other elements to be accepted by Israeli law. In 2004, for example, the state of Israel declared to the Supreme Court that it did not consider the Fundamental Agreement as binding, as an international pact.

This statement of the government to the Supreme Court still applies. However, one needs to understand the viewpoint of the Israeli state in relation to things included in the Fundamental Agreement.

A) In this Accord, signed in 1993, there is the basis, the framework, the parameters for future accords between Israel and the Holy See. There are clauses that tackle the necessity of tending to religious freedom, the fight against anti-Semitism and anti-Christianity, all matters regarding freedom, as well as an appeal to collaborate in the academic and cultural world. This is a non-binding part because it is worded in generic language and is a sort of infrastructure on which to base relations.

B) Another part stipulated that within one or two years, a financial and economic agreement would be reached to establish rights and duties of Catholic communities in Israel. This should have become law and we are working for this to come about.

From our viewpoint, the transfer of the Fundamental Agreement into law was not foreseen. It was just an agreement that should not have been enshrined into law. On the other hand, more practical things, like the judicial system, taxes and so on, these should have become law.

And what about the juridical personality of the Catholic Church? Even this should have become law...

Yes, it’s true. Even this element – called ecclesial legal personality – should have become law. It has not yet happened, but it has already been established that it will. A bill is currently being drafted for debate and enactment in the Knesset. The fact remains that basic criteria and parameters could not be enshrined in law.

So far the process has been very slow...

For several reasons, the process has dragged out for a long time – for subjective and objective reasons. There have been changes in the top Israeli leadership and even in the Vatican. Then we thought we would raise the level of our dialogue and this is why the Director-General of the Foreign Affairs Ministry recently went to the Vatican.

What is there that is new in your proposals at the resumption of negotiations?

In the context of new elements that we have suggested, we made a proposal that the Vatican is currently studying. For example, we could put some things in the “economic” agreement; others that are not lasting and precarious could be left as “understanding”, not formalized, so that the process [of absorption into Israeli law] will be more tranquil.

Will an understanding work in the search for legislative guarantees?

There is truly understanding and awareness of feasibility. It is not as it was in the past; we are not faced with a wall or an abyss to fill. On the other hand, we cannot accept what the Vatican wants due to the structure of Israeli law. This is another reason why several months have passed to find a path, an opening. We want to arrive at something lasting.

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