This December, a quarter of a century ago, the Holy See and the State of Israel signed the Fundamental Agreement that paved the way towards the full normalization of bilateral ties, crystallized in the establishment of diplomatic relations a few months later. How did the parties reach this transcendental agreement?
The story begins in the early nineties. With ongoing dialogue between Israelis, Palestinians and Arab nations in the framework of the Madrid Peace Conference, and an incipient and promising new reality in the Middle East emerging, the papal diplomacy towards the Jewish state was revised. Preliminary contacts began to take place between the parties, mainly represented by Monsignor Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, apostolic delegate in Jerusalem since April 1990, and Avi Pazner, ambassador to Italy as of October 1991. On May 21, 1992 , The Jerusalem Post informed about the first secret contacts, and on July 28 Corriere della Sera announced the imminent creation of a Bilateral Commission, integrated by experts under the supervision of Claudio María Celli from the Vatican Secretary of State and Yossi Beilin from the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
They counted on the mediation of Father David Jaeger, who had a peculiar personal story. A Jew and an Israeli by birth, a convert to Christianity and ordained priest by choice, he was an expert in Canon Law and in the history of the Holy Places in the Holy Land. His familiarity with Israeli society, on the one hand, and his knowledge of the Vatican ways on the other, made him a bridge between the parties.
As Italian journalist Lorenzo Cremonesi wrote in a book chapter detailing the stages of diplomatic negotiations, on August 28, 1993, Haaretz reported that in the Israeli Foreign Ministry “it is now widely believed that the Vatican will not normalize diplomatic relations until there is progress on the road to peace.” On September 13, Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) signed the Oslo Agreement at a ceremony in the White House, and shortly afterwards the Vatican-Israel Bilateral Commission resumed its tasks. In October, Pope John Paul II received Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and that same month the translation of the Fundamental Agreement from English into Hebrew began. It was completed on December 10th, and it was decided that it would be signed at the end of the month.
For the Israelis, the pact had a highly symbolic value and represented the advent of a new era in the relations between both religions. They understood that they were signing a legal/political document, but they attributed it a theological dimension as well. The Holy See saw it merely as a diplomatic treaty in the frame of international relations.
The differences of perspective between Israel and the Holy See had emerged from the very beginning of the talks. Mr. Cremonesi observed that not only did they have different positions on the issues to be negotiated, but the very nature of the agreement was perceived in significantly different ways. Israel considered that contacts should lead to the normalization of relations, after which the concerns of the Holy See would be discussed. The Vatican intended that the contacts (in addition to allowing her entry into the Madrid Conference) would help to resolve outstanding bilateral issues, after which relations could be normalized. The parties agreed that they would begin an exploratory dialogue in order to achieve partial agreements on agenda items; a Vatican preference. In turn, Rome was inclined to admit, albeit hypothetically, that the negotiations could result in full diplomatic relations if circumstances allowed for it.
Furthermore, the parties had different legal approaches. The Vatican took as a reference the concordats it had with other nations but the Israelis were not sufficiently familiar with Canon Law or the Church; “We had to create a communication alphabet from scratch,” said David Jaeger. It was determined that full diplomatic relations would be established no later than four months after the Fundamental Agreement was ratified. In January 1994, the Vatican designated Montezemolo as its envoy to the Jewish state, and Israel appointed Shmuel Hadas as its special representative to the Holy See. In March the Fundamental Agreement was ratified, and in June diplomatic relations were established. The nunziatura was located in the old Franciscan monastery of Saint Peter, in the town of Yaffo (in the outskirts of Tel-Aviv). By then Israel was 45 years-old.
The Holy See already had diplomatic relations with more than one hundred states, then. In some cases, such as with Poland, Mexico, the United States and Italy, the formalization of relations had taken extended periods of time. But it was clear that the nexus with the Jewish state was unique and that non-political issues were also at stake. This fact did not escape the attention of Catholics or Jews. “What is happening now,” said Shimon Peres, “is not a diplomatic act, but … a historical act.” Cardinal John O’Connor, Archbishop of New York, stressed that “one of the greatest events in history [should not be] trivialized by reducing it to the superficially political.” The Fundamental Agreement itself mentioned the “unique nature of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people” as well as the “historic process of reconciliation and growth in mutual understanding and friendship between Catholics and Jews.”
Since then, relations between Rome and Jerusalem were not exempted from ups and downs or even strong discrepancies. But the signing of this special agreement 25 years ago marked a turning point in Vatican-Israel affairs, and, as a result, in Catholic-Jewish ties, too.