‘Israel, Vatican near historic relationship upgrade’
By HERB KEINON
After 14 years of glacial negotiations, Israel and the Vatican are on the verge of signing a long-elusive agreement that would formalize diplomatic relations, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said on Tuesday.
Ayalon’s comments to The Jerusalem Post came after a meeting in Jerusalem of a working commission that has been trying to iron out various issues between Israel and the Holy See since 1999.
Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic ties in 1993.
“In the last four years a lot of ground has been covered, and after long, intensive and serious negotiations we have overcome most if not all the outstanding issues that have prevented signing of this agreement for so long,” Ayalon said.
He said the two sides were “on the verge of signing, subject to final approval by the government of Israel and the Holy See.”
Ayalon explained that the final agreement was not signed on Tuesday, because it was not appropriate for a caretaker government to sign the agreement, and that the actual acceptance and signing should be left to the next government.
“All the ground work is finished and I trust the new government will sign soon, which is nothing short of a milestone in the relationship,” he said.
Ayalon, who has led the negotiations with the Vatican for the past four years, but will be leaving his post next week, said the conclusion of the agreement signifies a “real upgrade in relations between Israel and the Holy See, and between the Jewish people and one billion Catholics around the world, to the benefit of both sides.”
Ayalon and his counterpart from the Vatican, Ettore Balestrero, the under-secretary of the Holy See for the relations with states, issued a joint communiqué saying the joint commission that met on Tuesday “took notice that significant progress was made and looks forward to a speedy conclusion of the agreement.”
Jerusalem expects this agreement to improve relations not only with the Vatican, but also with other Catholic countries around the world for whom the Vatican’s position vis-a-vis Israel is important.
Over the years the discussions have centered around three main issues: the status of the Catholic Church in Israel; the issue of sovereignty over some 21 sites in the country, including the Cenacle – the site of the Last Supper on Mount Zion; and taxation and expropriation issues.
Ayalon said that agreements have been reached on each of the issues.
The most contentious was the issue of sovereignty over the Last Supper Room, with the Catholic Church demanding ownership, and Israel not willing to relinquish it. The two sides have essentially agreed to disagree on the matter, but not let it stand in the way of the overall accord.
While the Catholic Church does not pay taxes on its properties in Israel, under the agreement, religious institutions owned by the Holy See will be exempted from tax, just as synagogues and mosques are, but church-owned businesses will not.
The agreement also works out the issue of expropriating Church property for infrastructure purposes, with a list of five sites – including the Mount of Beatitudes and Capernaum near Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth – where land expropriation would not be allowed except for public safety in situations of emergency, and then only after coordination with the Church.