By: JODI RUDORIN and DIAA HADIN, NY Times—
JERUSALEM — The Vatican announced Wednesday that it would soon sign a treaty that includes recognition of the “state of Palestine,” lending significant symbolic weight to an intensifying Palestinian push for international support for sovereignty that bypasses the paralyzed negotiations with Israel.
Palestinian leaders celebrated the Holy See’s endorsement as particularly important, given the international stature of Pope Francis. For Israelis, it was an emotional blow, since Francis has deep relationships with Jews dating back decades, and Christians are critical backers of their enterprise.
“The Vatican is not just a state. The Vatican represents hundreds of millions of Christians worldwide, including Palestinians, and has vast moral significance,” said Husam Zomlot, a senior Palestinian foreign-affairs official.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said it was “disappointed” by the Vatican’s decision, and that the recognition would “not advance the peace process.” That echoed similar statements after a wave of European Parliamentary resolutions on Palestinian statehood last fall, but some Israeli analysts said the Vatican’s step hurt more.
“Even this philo-Semitic pope, this pope who cares about the Jews, even he doesn’t get it,” said David Horovitz, editor of The Times of Israel news site. “Every time something like this happens, there’s this sense of anguish. Why don’t you understand? We want to separate from the Palestinians, but on terms that don’t threaten our security.”
The Vatican announcement came as Israel’s new, more conservative government published its official guidelines, which promised to “advance the peace process” and “make an effort to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians” but did not use the term “Palestinian state.”
While the language followed that of past coalition agreements, it caught attention because some world leaders have lately been questioning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s commitment to the two-state solution of the long-running conflict.
Mr. Netanyahu said on the eve of the March 17 elections that no Palestinian state would be established on his watch, then after his victory, said that he still supported the idea, but saw it as impossible under current conditions.
President Obama said then that he would “reassess” Washington’s longstanding policy of defending Israel in international forums. On Wednesday, in an interview with the pan-Arab news outlet Asharq al-Awsat, Mr. Obama said he was looking “to the new Israeli government and the Palestinians to demonstrate, through policies and actions, a genuine commitment to a two-state solution.”
In another sign of mounting European frustration with the situation, The Guardian published a letter on Wednesday from prominent former politicians and diplomats to European foreign ministers. In it they say that Mr. Netanyahu’s re-election and the new coalition required “urgent action” to pressure Israel regarding its occupation of the West Bank.
The letter further urged reconsideration of European relations with both Israelis and Palestinians, arguing that Mr. Netanyahu “has little intention of negotiating seriously for a two-state solution” and expressing “low confidence that the U.S. government will be in a position to take a lead on fresh negotiations.”
Since the breakdown of American-brokered peace talks 13 months ago, the Palestinians have been on a diplomatic campaign to leverage the nonmember, observer-state status they won in the United Nations in 2012 and create pressure on Israel.
Most of the 135 nations that have recognized a state of Palestine did so in 1988, after the Palestine Liberation Organization declared it; Sweden was the last, in October. The British, French, Spanish and Irish Parliaments have in recent months passed resolutions urging their governments to follow suit.
The Vatican has functionally dealt with Palestine as a state, welcoming its ambassador, since the 2012 United Nations vote. Francis made a grand gesture in that direction last spring when he flew directly to the West Bank from Amman rather than first landing in Israel, as his predecessors had. But the treaty, which had been under negotiation for a year and used “Palestine Liberation Organization” rather than “State of Palestine” in earlier drafts, formalizes the recognition.
The announcement coincides with the church’s canonization of two Palestinian nuns, the first-ever Arabic-speaking saints, in a Mass Sunday that President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority is to attend.
Hanna Amireh, a presidential aide on church affairs, said the treaty concerned the Vatican’s vast interests in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, including the standing of church courts and taxes on church institutions and lands.
The Vatican’s endorsement of statehood, he said, counters images of Palestinians as terrorists and “is recognition of the Palestinian character that has a clear message for coexistence and peace.”
Jamal Khader, rector of the Latin Patriarchate Seminary in Jerusalem, said Pope Francis and his secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, want “to create a new reality here.”
“The wider Arab world often thinks that it’s a Christian West against a Muslim East,” Father Khader said, “so this is an important step from the Catholic Church to show that, no, it is standing with the rights of Palestinians and with the right to a state of Palestine.”
But Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said he did not think the treaty “was meant to be something dramatic.” He said there had been intense wrangling between the church and the Palestinians over freedom of religion for the 60,000 Christians living in Palestinian territory among millions of Muslims.
“From the Vatican’s point of view, there is a new nomenclatural reality,” said Rabbi Rosen, “but in substance, I don’t think anyone is going to conclude that Pope Francis is any less committed to Israel’s security, welfare and flourishing.”
Daniel Levy, Middle East director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the Vatican treaty “is significant in terms of moral weight” but would have “no practical implication.”
“The challenge for the Palestinians for an awfully long time now has been translating a moral situation and translating sympathy and also translating Israel’s vulnerabilities, translating those into meaningful consequences,” Mr. Levy said. “The question is what happens the morning after recognition? Do those who recognize Palestine in any way have to recalibrate their bilateral relations with Israel? So far that has not been the case, and I don’t think that will be the case with the Vatican either.”
Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, said he wished the Vatican could at least have waited until after the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate, a church declaration that, among other things, absolved Jews of guilt for Jesus’ death.
“Why not let us all savor that spiritual achievement? Why muck it up with politics?” asked Mr. Halevi. “On the one hand, the Catholic Church has made profound progress in its theology toward the Jewish people and toward the Jewish return home. On the other hand, there’s this deep insensitivity here to the fears of Israelis that a solution will be imposed on us that could undermine our ability to defend ourselves in a radically unstable Middle East.”