Diplomacy: The pope and the Palestinians

Vatican recognition of Palestine builds on years of sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

Pope Francis (R) meets PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem May 25, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pope Francis (R) meets PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem May 25, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On February 15, 2000, Vatican diplomat Celestino Migliore met with his Palestinian counterpart, Dr. Emile (Imil) Jarjouri, at the Vatican. In the little-noticed event, the two signed a basic agreement between the Holy See and the PLO.
The document called “for a peaceful solution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which would realize the inalienable national legitimate rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people.” At the same time, the Vatican was at a fever-pitch, amid preparations for the ailing Pope John Paul II’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land that March.
It is often forgotten today, with the recent controversy surrounding the Vatican recognition of a Palestinian state, that there is a deep context to these negotiations. The Vatican’s relations with various states turn slowly; church authorities are cognizant of history and do not hurry things. When Migliore negotiated with the Palestinians, he was the point man at the Vatican’s Secretariat of State for establishing relations with countries that did not have formal relations with the Holy See, such as North Korea and China.
In regard to Israel, the Vatican only established relations with the Jewish state in December 1993. When Pope Paul VI came to the country in 1964, he never mentioned Israel by name and would not meet the president.
When the Vatican’s first envoy arrived in Jerusalem in 1994, it was only due to years of John Paul II’s attempts to heal historic wounds with the Jews. He had recognized the Jewish people in addresses in 1984 and 1986, and spoken out against anti-Semitism.
But the Palestinians always loomed for him as well. As the Vatican recognized Israel, it had been negotiating with the PLO – opening official relations with it as the “representative of the Palestinian people” in October 1994. This was the period of the Oslo Accords, and the Vatican likely felt it was an opportune time to establish ties with the Palestinian state in the making.
ON MAY 17, the Vatican canonized two nuns who were from Ottoman Palestine in the presence of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Pope Francis gave Abbas a medallion and told him, “The angel of peace destroys the evil spirit of war... I was thinking of you so that you may be an angel of peace.” The latter comment drew a round of consternation from the blogosphere and press, disputing whether the pope had called Abbas an “angel of peace.”
He hadn’t.
This translation problem seemed to cap a multi-day controversy in which the Vatican had been in the spotlight for recognizing Palestine as a state. Was the pope saying Abbas was an angel of peace? The actual implications were more prosaic.
Queried on May 13 as to whether the Vatican was recognizing Palestine, Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi brushed off the breaking news, saying, “Yes, it is a recognition that the state exists.” The Vatican was joining some 138 states that had voted to recognize Palestine in November 2012.
Ironically, in that vote at the UN General Assembly, Palestine became the only other non-member observer state besides the Vatican.
A church insider who has worked closely on Vatican relations with Israel and the Palestinians noted that there was nothing new.
“The Holy See has been using Palestine since 2012 or thereabouts. I remember when we were sending letters addressed to the Palestinian Authority, calling Abbas ‘head of the Authority,’ and then one day in 2012 it was ‘Palestine.’” Lombardi’s dismissal of the media inquisition was in this context: We’ve already recognized Palestine.
When the pope met Abbas on the eve of the canonization, his mind and that of the Vatican diplomats was clear. “Attention then turned to the peace process with Israel,” the Vatican statement notes, “and the hope was expressed that direct negotiations between the parties be resumed in order to find a just and lasting solution to the conflict.”
Vatican policy on the “conflict” has transitioned through three distinct periods.
Prior to the UN passing the Partition Plan in November 1947, the Vatican had lobbied for the international status of Jerusalem.
Its first priority was protecting Catholic shrines in the Holy City, as well as in Bethlehem, Nazareth and other areas.
Indeed, Pope Pius XII, in a publication called In multiplicibus curis, argued for Jerusalem to have an “international character...
with international guarantees... freedom of access and worship at the holy places scattered throughout Palestine.”
After the War of Independence, he maintained his support for an international status for the city, which had been envisioned in the UN Partition Plan.
Pope John Paul II, remembered for establishing ties with Israel and reforming the church’s relationship with the Jewish people, met Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat 12 times.
He first met Arafat just after the PLO had withdrawn its forces from Lebanon in the face of the Israeli invasion. Despite protests by Jewish leaders such as Julius Berman, then-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the pope was adamant in his being prepared to “receive all men and women who ask for it.”
A Vatican spokesman elaborated. “[He is] intending in this way to manifest his concern for all people, to further the aims of peace and promote understanding among nations... [It is] in no way a sign of approval of all the ideas and actions attributed to that person [e.g.
Arafat].” But it did reflect the pope’s “goodwill toward the Palestinian people.”
After recognizing Israel and establishing relations with the PLO, the Vatican continued to support Palestinian demands. In 2000 Vatican officials met with Nabil Sha’ath, in his capacity as Palestinian minister of international cooperation. “They [Vatican officials] said they would recognize an independent Palestinian state; they said they would not be the first to recognize it but they won’t be the last,” Sha’ath told reporters.
Both John Paul II and his successor Benedict XVI reiterated calls for “justice” for the Palestinians and respect for UN Resolution 242, which calls for Israeli withdrawal from territories conquered in 1967. That was made clear in September 2011 when the Vatican’s second-most senior diplomat, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, said that “if we want peace, courageous decisions have to be made,” and restated support for a two-state solution.
The push for recognition of Palestine does not come in a vacuum. When Israel and the Vatican signed the 1993 agreement there were many issues, particularly related to property and taxation, which were supposed to be ironed out in a subsequent agreement. In January 2013, deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon told reporters, “We have overcome most, if not all, the outstanding issues that have prevented us from signing this agreement for so long.”
Yet according to the church source that worked on the negotiations, there was a feeling on the Vatican side that the Israelis were not taking them seriously. “They fizzled out, they were going nowhere.”
The Palestinians stepped into the breach and made it clear they were willing to give the Vatican the tax breaks and other property rights they wanted. “They were always willing to do the negotiation because of the diplomatic advantage,” the source asserts.
“It isn’t about being chummy with the Palestinians, but getting them to protect church assets in a rule of law situation.”
According to insiders, the Vatican’s fear was that a subsequent Palestinian regime might not be so amenable; it was better to conclude negotiations now and get the PA to oblige itself to protect church property in the West Bank.
He is clear that this shouldn’t be taken as a slight against Israel by the pope; this should rather be viewed as the outcome of long years of slow-moving Vatican bureaucracy and the product of Vatican diplomacy and interests.
The real message to the Foreign Ministry might be: It is time for Israel to come to the table and conclude its negotiations with the Vatican.