The Holy See - Israel

What Point Have the Accords Reached?
Ten years ago, the Fundamental Accord between the Vatican and Israel was established, the first step toward reciprocal recognition. Now, however, inexplicably the Israeli government has cancelled all appointments for continued dialogue. We spoke with David Jaeger, spokesman for the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land and of the Permanent Bilateral Commission

edited by Luigi Amicone

Last March 10th marked the tenth anniversary of the historic Fundamental Accord normalizing relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel. On March 10, 1994, the Permanent Bilateral Commission was activated to regulate all juridical and legislative aspects of the Church’s presence in Israel. In practice, the goal of the contractual negotiation is to formulate a concordat like that in force today in Italy. In addition, March marked the tenth anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican. As we have noted in other occasions, David Jaeger is a priest who, according to the Israeli press, “represents the very incarnation of the accords between Israel and the Vatican.” Jaeger, an Israeli citizen, is a member of the Permanent Bilateral Commission, but clarifies that in this interview he speaks exclusively as spokesman for the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

So, Fr Jaeger, what assessment can you make ten years after the accord between Israel and the Holy See?
The Accord of December 31, 1993, which went into effect March 10, 1994, aimed to normalize Church-State relations and serve as an example for nearby states as well. That is, it sought to indicate the passage from an Ottoman system of circumscribed tolerance to a situation of reciprocal recognition and freedom of the Church founded on mutual recognition of the Catholic Church and of the Israeli State as two free and sovereign societies, each according to its own order, as also proclaimed in the accord for the modification of the agreement with Italy. In particular, the State of Israel committed to maintain freedom of religion and of conscience, to recognize the Church as a public authority, to recognize the juridical personality of ecclesiastical entities, and to negotiate a later accord that would lead to the consolidation of the fiscal exemptions due the Church and the guarantee of ecclesiastical properties. The accord was signed in a climate of great hopefulness and mutual satisfaction. Later, in 1997, the second accord was signed for civil recognition of ecclesiastical juridical persons.

This means that the accord of 1993-1994 did not definitively resolve the problems between the two parties. Why?
Because, starting in 1994, the accords began to be negotiated within a permanent bilateral work Commission, charged in effect with writing an agreement in stages. The Fundamental Accord described the big normatives, the big principles, while the later accords should have translated these principles into concrete details.
So, how has the work of your Commission proceeded over the years?
In 1999, negotiations began on the third accord, which in a certain sense is the most important, because it should have guaranteed the Church’s fiscal exemptions and right to its properties. These negotiations could have been concluded by last year. And thus the two delegations promised each other to make every effort to conclude the negotiations by 2003, both in order to celebrate adequately the tenth anniversary of the Fundamental Accord signing, and because the Fundamental Accord would be validated in a particular way in this agreement on the Church’s properties and rights. But, in a surprising move, on August 28th of last year, the government of Israel cancelled all appointments already set for the negotiations, and from that point on, no longer accepts having meetings of the bilateral Commission.

Why did Israeli diplomacy cancel all these appointments?
We don’t know. No explanation was given for any of this. It was an enormous surprise for us, also because in July 2003 the Israeli Foreign Minister, while at the Vatican, told journalists that his diplomats would without doubt return to the negotiating table, that within three months the new accord would be signed, and that the two delegations had set appointments for two whole weeks in September in order to complete the draft of the accord. Notwithstanding these declarations, on August 28, 2003, the government of Israel announced that its delegation would not come to these appointments and that it does not find itself in the condition of being able to speak of new appointments.

What consequences could come from this kind of “fall into arrears” of the work of the bilateral Commission?
There can be consequences from the juridical and from the practical points of view. Israel could turn out to be in default from the juridical point of view, while, from the practical point of view, for example, the fiscal problem of the Church in Israel remains unresolved. To date, the Church has trusted in the exemptions existent from the moment of the creation of the State of Israel. But, you understand, we need juridical certainty. For this reason it is indispensable to arrive at an accord.

Otherwise, it happens that, since these customary exemptions are not recognized by Israel, in the absence of a new accord, the entire question is regulated along discretional lines.

For example?
For example, judicial measures could be taken against ecclesiastical entities, which is already happening. In fact, a few entities, above all the Catholic Hospital of Saint Joseph in Jerusalem, have already been dragged into court, while the Fundamental Accord foresaw that steps of this kind would not be taken by the State, thus in a unilateral manner, while the accord was being negotiated. Instead, an absolutely Kafka-esque thing is happening: on the one hand, the State authorities have already begun to drag entities into court, and on the other the State refuses to appear in court to confirm its own commitment, signed in the Fundamental Accord, not to commit unilateral enforcement actions. So, the negotiation void is creating some seriously difficult situations for some ecclesiastical entities. It can be feared that the situation will degrade further.

Are there other signs of cooling or worsening of relations between the Church and Israel?
There is the well-known problem of the refusal of visas to ecclesiastical or religious persons. For a couple of years now, many members of the clergy have encountered serious difficulties in obtaining visas for entry and residence, a situation that has deteriorated from the way it has been for decades. And what worries us is that we receive no explanation from the Israeli authorities. This problem also belongs to the sphere of the Fundamental Accord, which recognizes–in article 3, paragraph 2–the Church’s right to organize its own personnel and institutions. On this point, as well, a detailed accord on the procedures for the request and granting of these residence permits should have been reached. After the agreement on taxes and property, negotiation on this point should have followed, according to an agenda established a decade ago. However, today everything is on hold.

Forgive me for being persistent: The Israeli authorities do not explain, but on your part, have you made any conjectures about the reasons for their sudden stiffening?
Look, I’ll tell you in all sincerity, nobody is able to understand this policy, because Israel has everything to gain from keeping its own commitments to the Catholic Church. I’ve spoken to a lot of people in Israel, but nobody can understand at all. All the questions can be resolved; they’re practical questions concerning the fabric of Church-State relations and the principles for their resolution have already been agreed upon in the Fundamental Accord. But to resolve problems, you have to sit down at the negotiating table. With this interruption, we lack the appropriate forum for establishing agreements on all the remaining problems. I repeat, there is no problem that can’t be resolved through dialogue and negotiation. But what can be done, if we don’t resume the road of negotiations?