Vatican: 'Sambi criticism of Knesset was his own'

Vatican distances itself from former envoy's comments; Chief Rabbinate: Relations never better.

Sambi 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sambi 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Vatican has distanced itself from comments made by its former ambassador to Israel, who last week charged the Knesset with lacking the political will to make the hard political decisions necessary if it means to honor Israel's international commitments. Archbishop Pietro Sambi accused Israel of dragging its heels over implementing the terms of the 1993 treaty that established diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Jewish state. However, the Vatican quickly distanced itself from the comments, saying they were the archbishop's personal views, not church policy. While the archbishop's comments are not likely to harm Catholic-Israeli relations in the long term - an official with the Chief Rabbinate's office told The Jerusalem Post relations have never been better - they underscore the tension within the Catholic Church over its Israel policy. Pope Benedict XVI is an avowed advocate of closer political relations with Israel and theological dialogue with Judaism. However, his views are not held by all within the Roman Catholic Church's hierarchy. In an interview published on the Italian Catholic Web site on November 16, Sambi, who served as the Church's nuncio (ambassador) to Israel from 1998 to 2005, said Catholic relations with Israel were at a low ebb, and had even been "better when there were not diplomatic relations." The Vatican had established relations with Israel as an "act of faith," with the belief that the "concrete aspects" of the concordat would be settled over time, he said. However, he said, this trust in Israel had been misguided. Ten years after Israel and the Vatican signed a treaty dealing with resolving disputes over taxation of church property, restitution for "unjustly seized" land, and "equal compensation" for work performed by Catholic social service agencies, the Israeli government had done nothing to implement the reforms, Sambi said. "Since the Fundamental and Legal Personality Agreements [of 1997] have been signed, they are internationally valid. But not in Israel, because Israeli law requires that any international agreement be approved by the Knesset for it to come into force on Israeli territory. And so far, no one has bothered to get the Knesset's approval," he said. "After 10 years of negotiations, the economic agreement has not yet been signed, undercut by delays and the Israeli delegation's limited power to negotiate, weakened, that is, by a lack of political will. Everyone can see how much faith can be placed in Israel's promises!" The Vatican moved quickly to minimize the diplomatic damage caused by Sambi's gaffe after Oded Ben-Hur, Israel's ambassador to the Vatican, asked for an explanation on Friday. Vatican Press Office director Fr. Federico Lombardi responded that the Archbishop's comments reflected "his opinions and his personal lived experience during the years of his service as apostolic delegate to Jerusalem and as nuncio to Israel." "The Holy See confirms, for its part, support - already expressed on the occasion of the recent visit of President Peres to the Holy Father - 'for a rapid conclusion of the important ongoing negotiations' and for a solution of common agreement for the existing problems," the Vatican said in a statement posted on the press office's Web site on November 19. Sambi's remarks also have contradicted recent public and private statements by Israeli and Vatican officials. Peres's September 6 visit to Pope Benedict XVI was considered a great success by Vatican insiders, while on August 16, Ben-Hur told the Catholic News Service that "officially and institutionally, relations are constantly improving" between Israel and the Vatican.