ALMOST half a century after the foundation of the State of Israel. the Vatican has taken a significant move towards the establishment of diplomatic relations. Rome has announced that a joint Vatican-Israel commission will be set up to study Churchrelated issues.
"This is the first official step towards a clear objective: the establishment of diplomatic
relations." said Vatican spokesperson, Joaquin NavarroValls. Israel's Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres. predicted this week that full diplomatic ties will come "sooner than people think".
The commission will limit its work to "bilateral" issues dealing with the Church and its various agencies and properties in Israel and the Occupied Territories. The initiative is the result of recent talks between Vatican and Israeli representatives in Jerusalem which have created a "favourable" atmosphere between the two. The recent change of government in Israel from the hard-line Likud coalition, led by Yitzhak Shamir, to Labour under the more pacific Yitzhak Rabin, had also contributed to the new development, said Mr NavarroValls.
The commission's agenda will not be made public but it has been suggested in Rome that it will not touch on such sensitive issues as the rights of Palestinians or the status of Jerusalem.
The Vatican has always said that Israeli claims to the whole of the ancient capital arc a block to full diplomatic relations between the two states. Hitherto the Vatican has simply recognised Israel's right to exist within secure boundaries.
Pope John Paul II has backed plans to make Jerusalem a specially constituted international city, with responsibility for its administration shared between Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians and representatives of the three faiths Moslems, Christians and
Jews who hold at sacred.
The commission will, however. tackle local disputes between the Catholic Church and the Israeli government over property rights. There is disagreement and confusion about the legal standing of Church institutions and their taxable status. The Palestinian-born Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, a close adviser to thc Pope, has clashed repeatedly with the Jerusalem authorities on these and other issues.
The Vatican has expressed optimism that its new venture with the Israelis will not alter relationships with Arab governments. "When Arab countries and even Palestinian representatives are meeting Israeli authorities in a peace process. it should not be seen as strange that the Vatican should initiate a process" said the papal spokesperson.
Rome has hinted that it may soon accept a Palestinian diplomatic representative in the Holy See. John Paul has met PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Rome.
However. Palestinian delegates at the Middle East Peace Conference were less than happy about the rapprochement between the Vatican and Israel. The Pope was following others by "paying and rewarding" Israel for entering the peace process before any substantial progress had been made said spokesperson Hanan Ashrawi. "Yet again the Palestinians are getting all the stick and Israel is getting all the carrot." Ms Ashrawi said that "as a Christian, I feel that as long as the Holy Land is in a painful situation, this development has come too soon".
It is thought that one of the reasons behind the Vatican's move to ease relations with Israel is the Pope's anxiety that the Holy See should have a voice in the peace process, started by US Secretary of State. James Baker, and given a boost by Mr Rabin's election victory.