01/11/2006, 00.00
ISRAEL – VATICAN

Talks continue between Israel and the Holy See, in the post-Sharon crisis

by Arieh Cohen

Delegations continue their deliberations.  However, concerns for the future remain: Sharon was among the most convinced supporters of this dialogue.

Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) – Negotiations continue between Israel and the Holy See to reach a comprehensive bilateral accord, despite the difficult political situation in Israel following Ariel Sharon's illness.  Delegations of the Holy See and the State of Israel have continued today, Wednesday, January 11, their negotiations aimed at reaching the "comprehensive agreement" mandated by the 1993 Fundamental Agreement, on the fiscal status of the Church in Israel, and on safeguarding ecclesiastical property, especially Holy Sites.  The previous meeting took place last November 24; parties have agreed to hold their next meetings on May 17 and 18. In the meantime the bilateral "Working Group" on properties the Churches wishes to recover will continue its work, and other consultations also will continue between the parties' legal experts.

All of this is taking place within the peculiar context of Israel's governance these days.

The Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is still in hospital, unconscious, and prevailing medical opinion is that he will not be able to resume his duties. The Foreign Minister, Sylvan Shalom, belongs to what is in effect an opposition party, Likud, and could resign at any time. At least ten ministerial positions are currently vacant, with related "portfolios" being temporarily covered by acting Prime Minister, Treasury Minister Ehud Olmert. General elections have been called for March 28, and thereafter several weeks will probably be required for the new government to be set up.

Sharon's departure from the political scene could cause some worry to the Catholic negotiators, given Premier Sharon's decisive role in making his colleagues and subordinates take seriously the relationship with the Catholic Church and resume negotiations with the Holy See, even when other government elements were inclined to go in other directions. But Church legal expert on Israel, Franciscan Father David-Maria A. Jaeger, is not unduly preoccupied: "As is often mentioned these days, the State endures and, with it, endure its obligations, and its need to fulfil treaty obligations in particular. It matters not what the precise composition is of the council of ministers at any one time, the relationship other Sovereign entities, such as the Holy See, have is with the State as such, and there has never been, nor will there be, a time when the State is without legitimate representation on the international plane."

Apart from these impeccable juridical considerations, the fact remains that the future outcome of negotiations could also depend on political factors.  Knowledgeable sources close to negotiations say that decisive factors are, nevertheless, situated in Washington, in the United States. It was Washington that persuaded Sharon of the importance of paying due attention to the Catholic Church, and it will fall to Washington to continue to press this matter on his successors, both before and after elections in Israel.

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