05/17/2007, 00.00
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Holy See and Israel to hold plenary meeting on May 21

by Arieh Cohen
Originally scheduled for last March and then cancelled, it is the first such meeting in five years. An expert, Fr David M. Jaeger, discusses it.

Tel Aviv (AsiaNews) - The main negotiators for the Holy See and the State of Israel will meet at the Vatican, on Monday, 21 May, for the first time in five years, as part of the framework of the Plenary of the Bilateral Permanent Working Commission between the Holy See and the State of Israel. The last Plenary met on 12 March 2002. The new meeting of the Plenary had been scheduled for 29 March this year, but Israel cancelled its participation at the last moment, citing an unexpected accumulation of foreign policy business that required the head of its delegation, the Director General of the Foreign Ministry, to stay home instead.

According to the established protocol, the head of the delegation of the Holy See will be the Under-Secretary for Relations with States, Monsignor Pietro Parolin.

The specific task of the Plenary will be to try to make some significant progress in the negotiations on the “comprehensive Agreement” that is needed for the security of the religious properties of the Catholic Church in Israel, and for the re-confirmation of the historic tax exemptions that the Church already possessed when the State of Israel was born, and that the United Nations had decided should be honoured by the Jewish State.

This “comprehensive Agreement” was mandated by the Fundamental Agreement that Israel had signed with the Holy See on 30 December 1993. The negotiations, however, have been taking place for at least eight years now, since 11 March 1999, without result.

Part of the problem, expert observers explain, is that the negotiations have been taking place only sporadically, with very long interruptions, while the amount of work to be done requires sustained negotiations. Franciscan Father David-Maria A. Jaeger, the leading expert on Church-State relations in Israel, agrees: “Writing a treaty of such complexity is a labour-intensive task,” he explains, “and, more than anything else, it requires time. Moreover, it requires continuous time, so as to allow the talks to build up momentum. There is no objective reason why the talks should not succeed. The Church is simply expecting further formal recognition of rights that she has already acquired, as well as some fundamental guarantees for the legal security of her sacred places. It should cost the State nothing to agree to this, and it would also be in accordance with public promises that the State has made many times over the decades. Still actually writing all this down in the necessary legal terms requires time and effort.”

No one is prepared to speculate on what might be the actual result of Monday’s talks, although a source close to the negotiations expresses “cautious optimism”, before pointing out that a single meeting will not be enough to conclude the negotiations, but that the meeting can make a decisive contribution to reaching this goal if it succeeds in establishing a plan for the negotiations to continue, namely if it decides on a good number of dates for further negotiations. “The negotiations,” says the source, “must lose their purely sporadic character and become truly systematic and sustained, for the Agreement to be actually achieved.”

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