By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Despite fears among Palestinians that a reported deal between Israel and the Vatican over taxation of church properties would amount to de facto Vatican recognition of Israeli annexation of East Jerusalem and other territories occupied during the 1967 war, a top Vatican official insisted today that’s not the case.
Recently, a cross-section of Palestinian Christian organizations sent a letter to the Vatican asking it to refrain from signing any agreement with Israel, based on media reports that the Vatican was on the verge of a deal that would tacitly recognize Israeli control over disputed territories.
Today, the Israel/Vatican bilateral commission met in Rome, the latest effort to resolve long-running disputes arising from the 1993 Fundamental Agreement between the two states. Although the agreement triggered mutual diplomatic recognition, the tax and juridical status of church properties in Israel was never resolved, and has been the object of contentious negotiations ever since.
Recently, media reports have suggested that as part of a deal with Israel, the Vatican would recognize Israel’s right to impose domestic legislation in disputed territories with the Palestinians, which critics charge would violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which among other provisions regulates the powers of an occupying force over the territory they control.
This afternoon in Rome, the Vatican released the text of an interview with Monsignor Ettore Balestrero, a senior official of the Secretariat of State who is also the Vatican’s lead negotiator with Israel.
The following is the full text of that interview.
Interview with Mgr Ettore Balestrero
The Plenary Meeting of the Bilateral Commission between the Holy See and the State of Israel, which is engaged in negotiations about the so-called Economic Agreement, has just concluded. How did the meeting go?
As was said in the statement, the atmosphere was positive and constructive. Significant progress was made and this gives us hope for the future.
Monsignor, in the last few days, there were insistent rumours in certain quarters that today would see the signing of this Agreement, which has been worked on for the past thirteen years and more. But there was no signature. What happened?
Nothing in particular. It is true that in some quarters there was talk about signing the agreement. However, this was not on the agenda. As I have said, progress was made, but there are still questions to be resolved.
There was also alarm in Palestinian circles that with the signing of this Agreement the Holy See would be indirectly recognising the sovereignty of Israel over East Jerusalem and the other territories occupied during the 1967 war.
The Agreement on which we have been working concerns the life, activities and fiscal regime of the Catholic Church in Israel. In the Agreement, we wished to steer clear of territorial disputes. We will not speak about East Jerusalem or places in the West Bank.
But mention was made of a draft agreement, which refers to places in East Jerusalem and the West Bank…
From the beginning of the negotiations we worked on a proposal for an Agreement which would also include the so-called Schedule One, that is, a list of individual properties belonging to the Holy See and to some Institutions of the Catholic Church in the Holy Land with regard to which, over the years, Israel introduced measures which were onerous for the proprietors. It is also true that some of these properties are in East Jerusalem or in the areas occupied in 1967. We aimed at resolving concrete problems. However, for quite some time, it has been decided to deal in the Agreement which we shall sign with some properties only, which are neither in East Jerusalem nor in the West Bank. Hence, it is not exact to state that the Holy See, with the agreement, would be in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention for the protection of civilians in time of war. The confusion and alarm are due to the undue use of a working text which is outdated for some time, and is in any case still being worked on.
Has the Holy See’s position about East Jerusalem changed?
The position of the Holy See has not changed. It was stated in the Basic Agreement between the Holy See and the PLO; it was repeated on various occasions and will be stated again in the Overall Agreement with the PLO, currently being worked on.
One last question. It was also written that this Agreement which the Holy See is working on with Israel would damage the Agreements which France and Italy and other countries have with Israel, to the disadvantage of the respective national institutions operating in Israel.
This is not exact. The Agreement concerns the Holy See and the State of Israel and has no effect on the Agreements which Israel has concluded with other States. The validity of the latter depends above all on the will of the contracting Parties and not on the existence of an Agreement of one of these Parties with a third subject, as in this case the Holy See. Furthermore, this is a commonly accepted principle of international law.