Israel, Vatican inch toward elusive bilateral agreements

Sovereignty over Last Supper Room issue removed to facilitate movement in negotiations.

Bishops Jlem (photo credit: AP)
Bishops Jlem
(photo credit: AP)
Israel and the Vatican agreed Tuesday to take the contentious issue of sovereignty over the Last Supper Room in Jerusalem out of the basket of bilateral issues being discussed, to facilitate movement in glacial negotiations on other issues that have already been going on for 11 years.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon met in the Vatican with Monsignor Ettore Balestreo, the undersecretary for relations with states, and issued a statement that “welcomed the progress” of a lower working-level commission thrashing out issues such as taxation of church property, land expropriation, and sovereignty over certain sites, such as the room where the Last Supper was believed to have been held on Mt. Zion, near King David’s Tomb.
The Vatican has demanded sovereignty over some 21 sites, including the Last Supper Room, while Israel has made clear it does not intend to relinquish ownership.
Under the negotiating principle of “nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed upon,” the dispute over the sovereignty issue has held up progress on other issues such as taxation and expropriation.
The Catholic Church currently does not pay taxes on its properties in Israel, and according to an agreement being discussed, this practice would come to an end. Exceptions would be graveyards and orphanages, which would still be tax-exempt.
In addition, discussion is progressing on the issue of expropriating church property for infrastructure purposes, with a list of six sites – including the Mount of Beatitudes, Capernaum and the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth – where land expropriation would not be allowed.
Israel and the Holy See have been discussing these issues formally since 1999. One Israeli official said that taking the sovereignty issue out of the “basket” of other bilateral issues had led to optimism that an agreement on the other topics could be reached in the “not-too-distant future.”
According to a joint communiqué issued Tuesday, another meeting at the level of Ayalon and Balestreo will be held in December, and a lower-level delegation will get together again at the end of July.