Israeli Envoy to Holy See Optimistic About Talks

Exclusive Interview With AsiaNews

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ROME, JULY 8, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Israel's ambassador to the Holy See says negotiations over the 1993 Fundamental Agreement will reach a positive conclusion "by the end of 2004."



Ambassador Oded Ben-Hur, in an interview with AsiaNews, said that the talks that took place Monday in Jerusalem were not productive "because it was still too early."

Yet, the ambassador said he is "profoundly optimistic" about the process.

"Technical difficulties exist, as do resistances, but we hope the accords will be concluded by the end of 2004, at the latest in early 2005," he said.

Ben-Hur's optimism is based on his belief that the Israeli "government is absolutely determined to conclude the accords by the end of the year."

The Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and Israel, signed a decade ago, was to lead to series of concordats that were to ensure the rights and freedom of the Church in Israeli territory. Israel has yet to enact the Fundamental Agreement under state law.

Last August, without explanation, Israel withdrew its delegation from negotiations when the two parties were working on provisions protecting Church properties and tax exemptions.

On Monday, negotiations began again, but after only three hours, the meeting was adjourned until September.

"The meeting of July 5 should not be judged negatively," Ambassador Ben-Hur said. "That date was part of the protocol and showed that relations are going ahead after last year's stall."

Church sources had told AsiaNews that the meeting was to be "a fully fledged negotiation and not a pro forma meeting."

Still, Ben-Hur remained optimistic. "There is no doubt that, with the next appointment of September 5, there will be much more substance on the table," he said. "The July 5 meeting produced nothing because it was still too early. It was only last May that we revived Israeli-Holy See relations."

Ben-Hur explained that last May he brought together various Vatican and Israeli figures to convince them to continue discussions. Among those invited were representatives of the Foreign and Finance Ministries, along with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's outgoing and incoming chiefs of staff.

"The difference between last August and now is the involvement of the Sharon government," the ambassador said. "To have contributed to bringing about this more direct involvement is a source of satisfaction for me."

Pressure from the United States was a factor behind Monday's meeting, which Ben-Hur defined as "an occasion to break the ice."

The Israeli diplomat says that the process must be viewed with "great patience."

He cited reasons for the slow pace of work in these past months: difficulties in finding legal terms; the need to review traditional laws and modernize them; and the need to find ways to "enhance relations with the Catholic community" without diminishing "caution toward the various religions in Jerusalem."

In any case, Ben-Hur affirms that "the representatives of various Ministries have done enough preparatory work by now on legal infrastructure," thanks to which "the accord will not only be ratified, but implemented."

Yet, there are even deeper roots to the reasons for such a slow pace, according to the ambassador.

In these past years, he said, Israel had given little value to these accords with the Vatican.

"In Israel, people do not realize how things are, they think that relations exist and take them for granted," Ben-Hur said. "Instead, we cannot ignore the Catholic world which makes up at least one-fifth of humanity.

"On the other hand, it gets difficult to draw the Israeli government's attention when there are daily conflicts, the fight against terrorism, relations with the United States and Europe, economic problems. Israel is a small state and we do not have a lot of personnel to assign to such studies."

As proof of the Israeli government's interest towards Christians, the ambassador recalled that last February, Prime Minister Sharon launched a full study on the importance of Christians and on relations between Israel and the Christian world, establishing a committee which consists of academic and political figures.

"It is a gradual process," Ben-Hur said. "This decision was perhaps not appreciated by all Israeli, but it is going forward. I'm counting on a bit of patience in limiting criticism and being more open and positive."