Vatican, Israel and the ‘state of Palestine’

Did Pope Francis declare that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was in fact “an angel of peace” or did he merely express the hope that Abbas “would become an angel of peace”?

June 8, 2015 21:14
3 minute read.
pope abbas

Pope Francis (R) meets PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem May 25, 2014.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Recently the Vatican’s recognized the “state of Palestine,” provoking anger and confusion in the Jewish world. An American Jewish spokesman announced it was the same old “historical Catholic enmity toward Jews,” while an Israeli journalist asserted that the move is “the latest [Church] attempt to nail the Jewish people to the cross.”

Another Israeli, unschooled in theology, proclaimed that the Vatican decision revoked the Second Vatican Council’s positive religious teachings about Judaism and the Jewish people.

In response Vatican spokespersons confusingly claimed that nothing had changed at all, since the Vatican had been using the term “state of Palestine” for a number of years.

And did Pope Francis declare that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was in fact “an angel of peace” or did he merely express the hope that Abbas “would become an angel of peace”? Clearly the Vatican’s elevation of Palestinian diplomatic status was a change, but is it helpful and does it make a real difference? The Church policy of protecting Christians living under the Palestinian Authority is understandable, as is its policy of encouraging Israelis and Palestinians to work toward a peaceful end to a long conflict. It is, however, unclear how these aims are helped by now recognizing “the state of Palestine.”

The leaders of the PA have failed to create infrastructure or political institutions that characterize a bona fide state. Abbas is now 11 years into his four-year term of office with no elections in sight, with no date or procedure for succession in sight.

Meanwhile the rival authorities of Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza continue to battle with each other. All attempts to reconcile them have failed, and no single authority or representation exists in the Palestinian territories.

Vatican recognition now will not facilitate actual statehood, nor bring closer the peace that we all pray for. Instead, it misleads the Palestinians into thinking that they can attain statehood without coming to an agreement with Israel and thus weakens any Palestinian incentive to negotiate directly with Israel. But neither the Vatican nor any foreign power can deliver peace to the Palestinians. Only Israel can do that, and responsible governments should be encouraging each side to renew negotiations, not avoid them. Recognition of a state of Palestine should come after Palestinians conclude a peace agreement with Israel – not before.

Like most governments, Jews and even Israelis, the Vatican believes in a twostate solution. The Vatican rejects any fundamentalist, uncompromising and maximalist interpretations of the Bible, as do many rabbis and Jewish leaders today. This means that there is no violation of the biblical covenant if the Jewish people do not retain sovereignty over all the Holy Land and cede some to territory to the Palestinians in the interest of peace.

The present Vatican recognition of Palestine is an untimely tactical error, yet it is only that. Despite claims to the contrary, it does not indicate a change in positive Vatican policy, and certainly not hostility toward Israel.

After the controversial recognition Pope Francis stated that “anyone who does not recognize the Jewish people and the State of Israel – and their right to exist – is guilty of anti-Semitism.” And anyone personally familiar with Vatican-Jewish relations understands that there is no Church backtracking or rethinking of Church teachings about the Jewish people and their living covenant with the Creator.

2015 is the 50th anniversary year of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council document that acknowledges validity of the Jewish covenant and the debt the Church owes to the Jewish people for providing the Church its biblical and theological foundation. Since 1965 it has been the official Church teaching and it remains so today. All recent Vatican and papal pronouncements affirm the Jewish covenant, and people knowledgeable about the warm dynamics of current Jewish-Catholic relations understand that reverting to the old supersessionist Church teachings is unthinkable.

Officials of Israel and the Vatican will air their differences frankly on the recognition of Palestine. Yet this disagreement is only an unfortunate bump in the road in the positive Vatican-Israel relations.

Israel and the Vatican will move on, and continue to fortify their constructive stable relationship. When Jews better inform themselves of the facts and eschew the politics of fear, they understand that despite the disagreement, nothing has really changed in the relationship between the Vatican and Israel or in the developing friendship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.

The author is a rabbi and the academic director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel.

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