Sergio I. Minerbi
Despite strong opposition in the Vatican to his visit to Israel, Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to arrive here on Monday. According to press reports, even prior to his arrival, President Shimon Peres was pressing Interior Minister Eli Yishai to waive Israeli sovereignty over six sites: the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth; the Church of Gethsemane, on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives; the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, at Tabgha on Lake Kinneret; the Mount of Beatitudes; the Basilica of Mount Tabor; and the Coenaculum on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. The first five sites already are the property of the Catholic Church, while the Coenaculum, the traditional site of the Last Supper, has not been in the Church’s hands for the past 400 years.
The status of the Coenaculum, which today also houses a mosque, is very different than the others. Legally, it belongs to the local Waqf (Muslim religious trust), and during the British Mandate, requests by the Church to have it restored to Catholic ownership went unanswered. Israel is only a custodian of the site, and a decision to hand it over to the Church would create a new conflict with the Muslim world, and would gravely threaten the status quo arrangement of 1852. Only preservation of the status quo can assure a minimum quiet in those sanctuaries, like the Holy Sepulchre, that belong to various churches. Moreover, both Israel and the Church are committed to respecting the status quo, according to the Fundamental Agreement of 1993.
There is no commanding reason to impair the status quo. Giving up Israeli sovereignty would mean that whenever a road would need to be paved, water or sewage pipes laid or electrical infrastructure renovated at any of these sites, permission would have to be granted by the Vatican. Interior Minister Yishai has objected to the move, claiming that such a concession would limit “the Israeli government’s ability to function as a sovereign government in those areas.” Israel could expect to be asked for similar concessions by the Greek Orthodox Church, from which it leases the land on which the Knesset and other buildings are located in Jerusalem. What makes the possibility of renouncing sovereignty especially absurd is that even in Italy, a tribunal refused to hear an appeal made on the basis of canon law (on another matter entirely), stating that it could pass judgment only on matters of Italian law. Should Israel be more Catholic than Italy? Definitely not.
Rather than considering phantasmagorical requests on the part of the Vatican, Israel could agree to the Holy See’s legitimate request to obtain exemption from taxation for its institutions in Israel – a request granted under the terms of the Fundamental Agreement, but not acted on since 1993 because of the Finance Ministry’s opposition, and the Foreign Ministry’s relative weakness.
So desperate is the Vatican for tax relief that the issue was raised by the pope himself last year when the new Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, Mordechay Lewy, presented his letter of accreditation, to no avail. Maybe such a move would make it easier to take the issue of the six holy sites off the table.
I am not sure that Israelis are aware of the measure of political hostility expressed by the Holy See toward Israel. Vatican authorities did not object explicitly to the bombing of civilian targets within Israel by Hamas over eight long years, but were quick and vehement in protesting the army’s campaign in the Gaza Strip this past winter. At the beginning of this year, the pope himself protested five time times in eight days.
Cardinal Renato Martino said at the time that Israel had transformed Gaza into a concentration camp. And just last Sunday, the pope expressed his sympathy for the Palestinians, saying: “In a special way, I ask that you remember the Palestinian people, who have endured great hardship and suffering.” Yet, I am not aware of any diplomatic measure by Israel conveying to the Holy See its regret and disappointment over the unbalanced and steady condemnation of Israel, at the same time that the pontiff expresses solidarity with the Palestinians, who, he said, live in a region “plagued by violence and injustice, mistrust, uncertainty and fear.”
Unfortunately, the itinerary of the pope’s visit will not allow him to receive a detailed description of the complex political situation in the region. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the only political personality scheduled to meet the pope – apart from a ceremonial encounter with President Shimon Peres – will apparently go to Nazareth, to the Basilica of the Annunciation, to meet him. Very strange indeed, since diplomatic protocol would generally demand that the pope pay a visit to the Prime Minister’s Residence, in Jerusalem.
Israel badly needs a complete reshuffling of its policy toward the Vatican. We should be much more flexible and forthcoming on fiscal issues, while alerting Jewish communities in the United States, which take pride in their good relations with the pope, to the Holy See’s very hostile posture on the political plane. After all, the Vatican still generally refuses to refer to Israel by its name, calling it instead the “Holy Land.”
Sergio I. Minerbi, a former Israeli ambassador, is author of the book “The Vatican and Zionism” (Oxford University Press,1990).