As a new Palestinian leadership begins to emerge along with the hope of a new era in Israeli-Palestinian relations, Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican has suggested that Israeli attention should now focus on improving relations with the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
“For the last 57 years, the government of Israel has had to devote 98 percent of its time to the Arab-Israeli crisis,” Obed Ben-Hur said during a press conference Monday at the Israeli Consulate. “We never stopped to think what kind of relations we want with the Christian world … and the 200 million Arabs around us. We never had this luxury. … Recently, the necessity of better relations with the Catholic Church became clear to me.”
He noted that since Israel and the Vatican established full diplomatic relations in 1993, the Israeli government hasn’t had time to finalize the details of a Fundamental Agreement with the Vatican.
But Ben-Hur said talks are nearing completion and that the document should be signed late this year or early next year.
“It sets relations between Israel and the Vatican, and deals with rights of Catholic communities in Israel, as well as issues that are financial, economic and judicial in nature,” Ben-Hur said. “We are about to conclude it.”
Although bilateral committees to handle some unresolved details of the agreement were established in 1999, Ben-Hur said in an interview that the talks came to a standstill in July 2003 “because there was no directive from ministers of the government” nor Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
In July, after Ben-Hur said Sharon had been “approached by U.S. authorities and friends all over the world,” the talks were resumed.
“Throughout the freeze, I worked … to make this happen by looking for compromises,” Ben-Hur said.
Among the problems that needed to be worked out was one involving visas for Catholic clergy wishing to come to Israel from Arab states, particularly those from Lebanon and Syria, which are still technically at war with Israel.
“We managed to solve the problem by making the visa process more liberal,” Ben-Hur said. “We overcame this problem two months ago and Israel’s minister of interior, Avraham Poraz, was invited to the Vatican to visit the Pope as a gesture of appreciation.”
Once the Fundamental Agreement is completed, legislation implementing the pact will be submitted to the Knesset for approval. The agreement would be signed at the Vatican and in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of the Center for Interreligious Understanding, said he is convinced that once the agreement is completed, getting the Knesset to adopt it will be a “simple matter.”
“The Catholic Church is the only buffer we have with the Muslims,” he said.
Ben-Hur pointed out that the 1.2 billion Catholics are in 47 countries and that “political, economic, cultural and spiritual cooperation” with the Catholic Church is “hugely important.”
“Besides our common roots, we face a common peril — extremist Islam and Muslim terrorism that is against the Western world,” he said. “They say that the West is the enemy, including the Pope and the Vatican.”
Rabbi Bemporad noted that he has been in meetings where the Catholic Church representative has said he was not permitted to speak derogatorily of the Jews because of the Fundamental Agreement signed in 1993. Article Two of the agreement committed Israel and the Vatican to “combat all forms of anti-Semitism and all kinds of racism and of religious intolerance.”
In addition, the pact said the Vatican “deplores attacks on Jews and desecration of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries, acts which offend the memory of victims of the Holocaust.”
Ben-Hur, Israel’s fourth ambassador to the Vatican in 11 years, said an “unpleasant history of anti-Semitism, Inquisition, expulsion and Crusades created suspicion on the part of the Jewish people and the State of Israel” toward the Catholic Church. But he said the Vatican now wants “better understanding and cooperation that could lead to a better future.”