12/11/2009, 00.00
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Holy See-Israel: still no agreement, but work moving forward

by Arieh Cohen
The plenary meeting held yesterday at the Vatican described as "friendly" and further meetings scheduled for January and May 2010. The delegation led by Msgr. Balestrero and Daniel Ayalon. Fr Jaeger optimist: The slowness is due to the complexity of the matter. But there is no legal vacuum: the commitment of the Parties to negotiate a new treaty is 'without prejudice' of existing rights.

Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) There was not much surprise in the Church in Israel that the Thursday 10 December Plenary meeting, in the Vatican, of the Bilateral Permanent Working Group between the Holy See and the State of Israel did not end with an announcement that the Agreement on fiscal and Church property matters, under negotiations for ten years, has not yet been achieved. Indeed the more knowledgeable one is of the significance and complexity of the issues, the less one expects the accord to be completed without a good deal of further work. The Commission itself announced the 27th of May as the date of its next Plenary meeting and the 7th of January, i.e., next month, as the next date for its “Working Level” meeting. Its Joint Communiqué, released in the Vatican in the early afternoon, spoke of talks characterized by “an atmosphere of cordiality and mutual understanding,” which is surely a reason for hope that, on a subsequent occasion, the much awaited Agreement will indeed be achieved.

At the twice-yearly meeting, held this time at the Vatican Apostolic Palace, the Delegation of the Holy See was led for the first time by the new Under-Secretary for Relations with States, Monsignor Ettore Balestrero, while the Delegation of the State of Israel was led by his counterpart, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Daniel Ayalon, a former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.

As always, no details have been released of the actual contents of the meeting, although it is, of course, assumed that at least most of it dealt with the need to carry out the mandate of the 1993 Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel, to conclude a “comprehensive agreement” on the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish State in matters both of taxation and of Church property. Essentially the Church wishes for renewed recognition of the historic rights it had acquired in both fields prior to the creation of the present State, in 1948.

It is generally understood that the Holy See’s entering into the Fundamental Agreement (in 1993) and its establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel (in 1994) both presupposed such recognition, leaving the spelling out of it in detail to this further treaty.

Why then are these negotiations taking so long? AsiaNews asked the Franciscan jurist, Father David-Maria A. Jaeger, noted expert on Church-State relations in Israel. “These are inherently very complex matters,” he replies. “It is necessary to examine carefully how certain historic rules could be adapted to present-day realities without thereby accidentally worsening the actual condition of the Church rather than securing it. And favoring the existence of the Church in Israel is the shared goal of both Parties. All of this takes time and effort and cannot be rushed. In fiscal matters particularly, the purpose of the talks is to identify the rules created by previous legislation, sometimes going back centuries, as well as by international resolutions, custom, usages and practice, and then look at how they might need to be developed to meet the challenges of the present day.”

In any case, he adds, “It is not as if in the meantime there is a normative void, since the existing legal situation, with its international law components, continues unless and until the new treaty itself enters into force. The Fundamental Agreement itself, in its Article 10 § 2, is explicit that the commitment of the Parties to negotiate this treaty is ‘without prejudice’ to the rights in existence.”

But at what point in this great endeavor are the talks right now, AsiaNews asks. “It is necessary to look carefully at the language of this latest Communiqué,” the Franciscan jurist suggests.

It clearly recognizes that there has been ‘work done’ since the previous Plenary, in May, and that there is likewise ‘further work to be done’. This surely indicates that the talks are steadily moving forward, and that the Parties maintain faith with their oft-declared joint determination to continue working at it, in order to reach the Agreement as soon as it can possibly be done.” He concludes: “I am an optimist: Too much effort, too many expectations, have been invested in this process over too many years for it not to succeed. The announcement as of now of the next meetings is the best sign that this is also the conviction of both sides”


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