Diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See established in 1993 were preceded by almost a century of contacts and diplomatic activity.

Full and formal diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See were established in 1993. They were preceded, however, by almost a century of contacts and diplomatic activity, not to mention almost two millennia of Catholic-Jewish encounters that at times were far from harmonious.

1. The pre-State era

In 1897, when the Zionist idea was beginning to gain currency in Europe, and four months before the First Zionist Congress was held in Basle, the authoritative Jesuit journal, Civiltà Cattolica, let it be known that a Jewish state in the Holy Land with Jerusalem as its capital and with custody of the Holy Places was unthinkable for the Catholic Church.

Seven years later, in 1904, the founder of the Zionist Movement, Theodor Herzl, met with Pope Pius X, in the hope of gaining the Holy See’s support for the Zionist enterprise. Pius rebuffed him, declaring that the Church could not recognize the Jewish people and its aspirations in Palestine, since the Jews "have not recognized our Lord". Herzl was moved by political considerations; the Pope’s response derived from Catholic theology.

Zionist contacts with the Church’s hierarchy and authoritative Vatican pronouncements regarding Zionist ambitions were sporadic over the next four decades, which embraced two World Wars. However, they were sufficient to confirm basic, and consistent, elements in the Vatican’s position prefigured, as it were, by Civiltà Cattolica and Pius X. The Holy See was opposed to a Jewish homeland in Palestine, especially as envisaged in the British Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917. The Holy Places were a vital interest and Jewish custody of them was not acceptable. Their disposition and safeguarding were matters to be determined between the Church and the Great Powers. There were theological problems surrounding a possible Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land.

UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of 29 November 1947 (the "Partition Resolution"), envisaging a "corpus separatum" status for Jerusalem and its environs, was viewed favorably by the Vatican. However, that resolution was promptly rejected by the Arab states and, following the hostilities of 1948, the "corpus separatum" (separate entity) for Jerusalem did not come about.

In October of that year, Pope Pius XII, deeply disturbed by the violent conflict in the Holy Land, issued an encyclical, In Multiplicibus Curis, in which he called on the peace-makers to give Jerusalem and its outskirts "an international character" and to assure – "with international guarantees" – freedom of access and worship at the Holy Places scattered throughout Palestine. In a second encyclical, Redemptoris Nostra of April 1949, Pius appealed for justice for the Palestinian refugees and repeated his call for an "international status" as the best form of protection for the Holy Places. The Vatican’s official position on the issue, as well as on the refugee question, had essentially been laid down for the next two decades.

2. The post-State era – de facto recognition

In 1948, the fledgling State of Israel was eager to secure the Holy See’s recognition of its sovereignty and of territorial gains, in the light of the Vatican’s moral standing internationally and the influence it enjoyed, to greater or lesser extents, with governments in certain Catholic countries and more than half of the world’s Christians. To that end, representatives were sent to the Vatican in September. While the delegation failed to achieve its primary goal, various understandings were reached for dealing with problems of joint concern, partly on a bilateral basis and partly through the Papal Nuncio to the Holy Land and the Patriarchal Vicar to the Galilee. Implicit in these understandings was de facto recognition on the Vatican’s part of the State of Israel – a fact which the Holy See frequently referred to in subsequent dealings with Israel.

The Vatican continued to strive for the internationalization of Jerusalem and the Holy Places. In 1950, it orchestrated an unsuccessful attempt at the United Nations to bring that about. Thereafter, the Vatican did not renew its initiative at the UN but, equally, it did not give up its aspirations for Jerusalem and the Holy Places.

In parallel, the Israel-Vatican contacts progressed at various levels. Of note in the early years, Foreign Minister Moshe Sharrett met with Pius XII in 1952 and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra played for him in 1955. Israel’s declared aim remained full diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Successive attempts over the next years by Israeli diplomats were to no avail. Pope Paul VI’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in January 1964 was conducted in a manner that made it patently, and painfully, clear that the Holy See did not recognise Israel de jure.

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council promulgated a declaration known as Nostra Aetate, which fundamentally changed the Church’s relationship with the Jews – stating, inter alia, that "God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes [to them]". Moreover, Jesus’ passion (death and crucifixion) "cannot be charged against all Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today."

If certain theological objections in the way of de jure recognition of Israel had been attenuated, major political stumbling blocks remained. Beyond the issue of Israel’s sovereignty over all its territory, including parts of Jerusalem, its lack of recognised borders, and the question of the Holy Places and their protection, the Vatican maintained its concern for the needs of local Catholics as well as for the plight of the Palestinian refugees. In addition, it was apprehensive of a backlash against Christian minorities in Arab countries and indeed the Vatican itself, if it were to recognise Israel de jure. As for Israel, hesitations emerged in certain quarters about full relations with the Vatican, as the ramifications became apparent.

The Six Day War of 1967 changed the geo-political situation in the region. Israel was in firm possession of the whole of the Holy Land west of the River Jordan, including all the Christian Holy Places therein. This led the Vatican to modify its position in a pragmatic way. In an address to Cardinals in December 1967, Paul VI called for a "special statute, internationally guaranteed" for Jerusalem and the Holy Places (rather than internationalization). This remains the Vatican’s formal position on the issue until today.

At the same time, high level contacts between the sides continued. Among others, Paul VI received Foreign Minister Abba Eban in 1969, Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1973 and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan in 1978. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was received by Pope John Paul II in 1982. The question of full diplomatic relations was broached in these and other contacts but the Vatican remained reticent and, while Israel made the running, it was not overly pressing.

The first signs of a possible change in atmosphere came after the ascension in 1978 of Pope John Paul II, who was very different in background from his Italian predecessors. As a youth he had had many Jewish friends in his home town of Wadowice; he had witnessed the Holocaust (he himself was pressed into forced labour under the Nazi occupation of Poland); and he sympathized with the national yearnings of the Poles and other peoples. In 1984, he invoked security and tranquility for the Jewish people living in the State of Israel, "as a prerogative of every nation". Addressing Jewish leaders in Miami in September 1987, he recognised the right of the Jewish people to a homeland, "as does any civil nation, according to international law (which is what we seek), for the Jewish people who live in the State of Israel … ."

While others in the Vatican signaled that the theological and now the political impediments to full diplomatic relations with Israel had been largely removed, another five years were to pass before John Paul moved to translate his sentiments into a diplomatic reality. Following the first Gulf War in 1991, the Arab-Israel peace process was reactivated. The PLO recognized Israel and various Arab States established diplomatic ties with the State. In parallel, the Soviet Union and a significant number of states renewed their relations with Israel (broken off after the Six Day War). Additionally, certain leading countries, such as China and India, entered into full diplomatic relations with Israel for the first time, in order to be parties to the multilateral peace talks.

Given that Arab and Palestinian recognition of Israel had not led to upheaval in the Middle East and perhaps sensing that the Holy See might be in a singular predicament of not being able to treat with Israel formally when matters of vital interest to it were eventually discussed in peace negotiations, John Paul sanctioned certain diplomatic "feelers" towards Israel and then took the initiative himself. At the beginning of April 1992, the Israel Ambassador to Italy, Avi Pazner, and his wife were invited to a private audience with the Pope. At the latter’s request, the Ambassador offered a survey of the situation in the Middle East, in the course of which he made allusion to the refusal of some Arab states to accept Israel, despite Palestinian recognition and the ongoing peace process. The oblique reference was apparently understood and may have tipped the balance, as ten days later the Vatican’s "Foreign Minister", Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, informed Ambassador Pazner that John Paul had directed the Curia to open negotiations with a view to the possibility of full diplomatic relations with Israel. After meeting the Pope in October, the Israel Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres (now President of Israel) remarked that, even in the light of the recent recognition of Israel by so many other nations, "to add the Vatican to all these is to really change things".

3.  1993 and onwards – de jure recognition

A year and a half of complicated negotiations culminated with the signing of the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel on 30 December 1993. Then, in accordance with the Additional Protocol to the Fundamental Agreement, fully accredited ambassadors were exchanged in May 1994. More in the nature of a framework agreement, the Fundamental Agreement opened the way for the establishment of juridical and fiscal subcommissions to deal with an array of substantive matters that were consciously left outstanding. Adding an unusual dimension, the Agreement acknowledged the unique nature of the relationship between the Church and the Jewish People and reiterated the Church’s condemnation of anti-Semitism in all its forms, as voiced in Nostra Aetate.

Since that point in time, Israel and the Holy See have maintained a close diplomatic relationship – which has not been without its periods of strain and even crisis. The deliberations of the juridical sub-committee were concluded relatively quickly with a supplementary agreement signed on 10 December 1997, in which Israel recognised the juridical personality and the authority of canon law within the Catholic Church and its institutions, as well as those of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem and of the Eastern Catholic Patriarchates and their respective dioceses in the territory of Israel, while for their part those ecclesiastical entities recognised prevailing Israeli law in civil and criminal matters. On the other hand, the work of the fiscal sub-committee is still unfinished, due to serious difficulties in bridging the principled positions of the two sides and, from Israel’s point of view, because of the potential fiscal and material implications of any special privileges that may be granted to the Catholic Church for other Christian and non-Christian groups in the country.

A high point in the relationship was reached when Pope John Paul made his Pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the Jubilee Year of 2000. Whilst the religious nature of the visit was pre-eminent, the political aspects could not be ignored – as, for example, when John Paul called on the President of Israel and when he met with the Prime Minister and members of his Cabinet.

High hopes in Israel of a closer political-diplomatic relationship with the Vatican in the wake of that visit were dashed with the outbreak of the second "intifada" in September 2000. Critical of Israel’s military response to the Palestinian uprising and of the inevitable halt in the peace process, the Vatican put its diplomatic relationship with Israel on a chilly hold. Mindful, however, not to cause a complete hiatus, the Vatican put greater emphasis on the Jewish-Catholic dimension of the relationship. A number of initiatives were encouraged, including the launching of a remarkable dialogue between the Holy See and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in 2003, which still goes on productively today.

Strains of a different kind were put on the relationship in 1998 when Muslims in Nazareth sought to build a large mosque adjacent to the Church of the Annunciation with, it was thought, tacit agreement from political elements in Israel. This problem, directly involving a Catholic Holy Place, was only resolved in January 2002 when a governmental committee advanced a landscaping plan effectively putting an end to the building of the mosque. As against that, the diplomatic relations proved their strength and value when the Vatican and Israel worked closely and discreetly to help find a solution to the difficult situation created in April 2002 when armed Palestinian gunmen took control of another Holy Place, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and trapped inside it numbers of clerics (Catholics, Armenians and Greek Orthodox) as well as unarmed Palestinian civilians.

For the most part, the relationship proceeds on an even keel. Ministerial visits to the Holy See are frequent and too numerous to count. The first President of Israel to be received by the Pope was President Moshe Katsav in December 2002. On a day-to-day basis, the Israel Embassy to the Holy See seeks to keep the Vatican informed of official policies on current issues, while the Vatican’s Embassy in Jaffa sees to its manifold property and other interests in Israel. Both sides seek avenues to broaden cultural, educational, academic and inter-religious cooperation and understanding. And mundane matters, such as visa problems and the entry into Israel of Catholic clergy from Arab lands not at peace with Israel, are dealt with routinely.

Israel and the Vatican attach particular importance to this diplomatic relationship. In many ways, it is a unique relationship, infused with centuries of Catholic-Jewish encounters, and encompassing interests that both sides regard as paramount. The relationship can therefore be expected to remain solid and vibrant, and to weather the occasional strain that will inevitably recur.