A Vatican advance team is expected in Israel in the near future to plan for a likely papal visit in late May, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who will fly to Rome on Sunday and meet Pope Francis the next morning, will extend a formal invitation for him to visit the Holy Land.
President Shimon Peres visited the pope in April and invited him to Israel, but the Vatican was noncommittal at that time.
The visit, which would be the first since Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2009, is tentatively set for May 25-26. No formal Vatican confirmation of the trip has yet been received, however, and Vatican press officials said the reports of the date were not accurate.
Monday’s meeting between Netanyahu and the pope will be the first since Francis was elected to the supreme position in March.
Israeli diplomatic officials said that any time the pope and the prime minister meet it is significant, especially since the idea of Jewish sovereignty was not always something easy for the Vatican to accept – Israel and the Vatican only established diplomatic ties in 1993.
One diplomatic official said that Francis is considered a “very good friend,” who had a close relationship with the local Jewish community when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Israel and the Vatican have a convergence of interests on a number of matters, and “some of the same forces that threaten Israel are threatening Christian minorities across the region,” another official said.
In addition to the plight of Christian communities throughout the region, the two are also expected to address the so-called price-tag attacks against some Christian sites in Israel.
If he makes the trip, Francis will become the fourth pontiff to visit Israel, though Pope Paul VI’s half-day visit to Jerusalem in 1964 came nearly 30 years before diplomatic relations were established between the two countries.
Pope John Paul II visited in 2000 and Pope Benedict XVI nine years later.
This will be Netanyahu’s second visit to Rome in just over a month – he was there in October to meet Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta and US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Following Monday morning’s meeting, Netanyahu will lead a delegation of Israeli ministers for a governmentto- government meeting with the Italian cabinet.
Iran will be one of the focuses of the discussions when Netanyahu meets his Italian counterpart.
Netanyahu channeled the Hanukka theme while relating to the Islamic Republic on Thursday during a candle lighting ceremony at the Western Wall. He invoked the Hanukka slogan: “We have come to expel the darkness.”
“The darkness that threatens the world the most today is the darkness of a nuclear Iran. We are obligated to do everything possible to prevent that darkness. If possible, it is preferable to do this through diplomatic channels, and if not we will act as a light unto the nations.”
Netanyahu said that Israel was currently engaging with the US and the other world powers negotiating with Iran regarding the “type of arrangement that can push away that darkness, and it must in the end bring about the dismantling of Iran’s military nuclear capabilities.”
Among the ministers accompanying Netanyahu to Rome will be Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, making his first trip abroad since returning to the ministry earlier this month.
Liberman will fly from Rome to Washington for meetings and to take part in the annual Saban Forum, and then on to Moscow for the annual Israel- Russian consultations.