Holy See-Israel Panel Bump Up Plenary to April

Ahead of Possible Papal Visit to Nation in May

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By Jesús Colina



JERUSALEM, DEC. 18, 2008 (Zenit.org).- After 15 years, negotiations between the Holy See and Israel are picking up steam just as a possible visit of Benedict XVI to the Holy Land appears to be just months away.

A statement released today at the end of a meeting of Bilateral Permanent Working Commission between the State of Israel and the Holy See announced it would bump up the next plenary session from June to April, and that it will hold four meetings in three months for the working-level commission: Jan. 15, Feb. 18, March 5 and March 26.

Since signing the Fundamental Agreement in 1993, which established diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel, the two sides have been negotiating the particulars of tax exemptions and property rights for the Church, in particular for the holy sites. Talks have crawled along at best, and stopped altogether in 2003 for several years.

They began again in 2005, but never with the current intensity.

With these meetings, the statement explained, both delegations want to show their willingness to "accelerate the talks and conclude the agreement at the earliest opportunity." The statement also underlined "an atmosphere of great cordiality and good will."

While officially, the negotiations have nothing to do with Benedict XVI's visit to Israel, sources in the Vatican explained to ZENIT that Israel is interested in the good image the Pope's visit can give to the nation, and the Church is interested in consolidating its presence in the Holy Land.

No official announcement from the Vatican has been made regarding the Pope's visit, but the mayor of Bethlehem, Victor Batarseh, announced Wednesday that the Holy Father will visit the Holy Land in May.

The announcement confirmed reports this week by Italian newspaper Il Foglio that the papal visit would take place in May, with the Pope visiting Jordan, Israel and the territories of the Palestinian National Authority

The Israeli government remains silent on the issue, but last week a Vatican delegation was received by President Shimon Peres to analyze a possible visit.