Signing of PLO-Vatican Pact Reverberates in Israel

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Just over a month before Pope John Paul II is due to visit the Holy Land, this week's signing of a Vatican-PLO pact has prompted a serious political row.

Foreign Ministry director-general Eytan Bentsur said the agreement conflicted with understandings and agreements between Israel and the Holy See, and Israel would be looking closely again at those agreements over the next few days.

He said the preamble of the pact signed by Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and the Pope, as well as the section dealing with Jerusalem were "not acceptable to Israel."

"Israel rejects the criticism implied in the agreement regarding freedom of conscience and worship in Jerusalem and regarding free access to the holy sites," Bentsur said Wednesday during a meeting with the Vatican's representative in Jerusalem, Archbishop Pietro Sambi.

"Never have these principles been respected in Jerusalem to the extent that they are now respected and practiced in the capital of Israel, under Israeli rule," he added.

Sambi was summoned to the Foreign Ministry to hear Israel's concerns about the agreement, signed in the Vatican on Tuesday.

Sambi and the Vatican defended the agreement, saying Israel had misinterpreted it.

Holy See Press Office Director Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the agreement "does not concern the peace process as such, but rather regulates the presence and activity of the Catholic Church in the territories run by the Palestinian Authority."

"There is no reference to the political situation of Jerusalem," Sambi told reporters after the meeting with Bentsur.

Nonetheless, both the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, the self-rule administration which Arafat also heads, viewed the agreement as a political coup.

Arafat hailed the Vatican accord as "a very important agreement" which is "historic and important" for the "Palestinian people and the peace process in the region." Arafat's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudaineh, was quoted as saying, "The agreement ... signals that Jerusalem is not only a Jewish city and cannot be ruled by Israel alone."

Arafat discussed the agreement with Jordanian King Abdullah II on Wednesday and was due to consult on the matter Thursday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

King Abdullah II called the agreement a "positive step toward achieving equality and justice within the principles of a comprehensive and just peace in the region."

Contacted by, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry declined to elaborate on suspected conflicts between the Vatican's accords with Israel and the new one with the PLO.

According to the Oslo Accords, the status of Jerusalem is an issue to be resolved in a final negotiated settlement between Israel and the PA.

The PA wants to incorporate the eastern, heavily Arab-populated section of the city into a future state, as its capital. All Israeli governments have maintained that Jerusalem is the eternal, indivisible capital of the State of Israel.

The papal agreement begins by stating that the Holy See is working "for the benefit and on behalf of the Palestinian Authority." It goes on to call for an internationally-guaranteed "special statute for Jerusalem," which would ensure freedom of religion, access to the holy places and equality for the three monotheistic religions.

Reuven Merhav, former director general of the Foreign Ministry, told that Israel has guaranteed those rights by law since 1967.

He called Tuesday's agreement "very serious," but added that the "good news" was the fact it did not demand that U.N. resolution 181 apply to the city.

Resolution 181 of 1947 called for Jerusalem to be established as a "corpus seperatum (a separate body) under a special international regime ... administered by the United Nations."

In subsequent years, another plan mooted was that the Old City of Jerusalem be internationalized. Due to the large number of churches there, the Vatican might administer it, according to the proposal.

But the Old City also contains the Western Wall of the ancient Temple, the holiest site in Judaism, and a mosque considered third most sacred in the Muslim world. The idea has not been discussed in Israel for years.

Merhav said the Vatican-PLO agreement "leaves enough leeway for us to reach an agreement that [leaves] overall control in the hands of Israel."

He suggested sovereignty over the city could be turned over to "God" - represented by religious leaders - while access would be open to everyone. Israel would be responsible for security.

"It will perpetuate the status quo. Nothing will really change," Merhav said.

But Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert called the pact "morally reprehensible."

"In the context of a very exciting visit, which was to be a historic landmark in relations between the church and the Jewish people, political situations are introduced that are threatening to spoil the joy, the excitement and the historical symbolism of the visit," Olmert said.

Just last week, Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem welcomed the Pope's decision to meet them officially. And one of Israel's chief rabbis said earlier the Pope's agreement to visit the Western Wall was tantamount to his recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the city.

Undeterred by the political row, preparations for the papal visit are continuing. Some 17,695 police officers will be involved in security and the largest medical support system ever assembled for a visiting dignitary is being prepared.