Will popes Palestine reference hurt Jewish-Catholic ties

When considering the Vatican’s creep toward recognition of Palestinian statehood, think “Israel-Vatican” and not “Jewish-Catholic,” say Jewish officials involved in dialogue with the church.

A May 13 announcement on an agreement regarding the functioning of the church in areas under Palestinian control raised eyebrows in its reference to the “State of Palestine.”

The upset was compounded by confusion over whether Pope Francis, in a meeting over the weekend with Palest­inian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, praised him as an “angel of peace” or urged him to attain that vaunted status. On May 19, a Vatican spokesman said it was “very clear” that the pope was “encouraging a commitment to peace.”

When the Vatican launched talks with the Palestinians in 2000, it referred to the other side as the PLO, but over time shifted to Palestine. Pope Francis in his 2014 visit to Israel and the West Bank spoke of “my presence today in Palestine” during a Bethlehem stop and referred to “the good relations existing be­tween the Holy See and the State of Palestine.”

The Vatican’s shift from calling its Palestinian partner the Palestine Liberation Organization — the designation Israel accepts — to calling it Palestine comports with a similar shif tthat has taken place in Europe, the Jewish officials said.

Pope Francis greets PA President Mahmoud Abbas on May 17. photo/jta-getty images-franco origlia

Referring to a State of Palestine was “disturbing, but not critical,” said Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director.

Catholic-Jewish relations and diplomacy between Israel and the Vatican are “on different tracks,” Foxman said.

Israeli officials, speaking anonymously, said they were “disappointed” in the use of the term “State of Palestine.”

A number of congressional Repub­licans also expressed “disappointment” in the pope, Politico reported.

Marshall Breger, a professor at the Catholic University of America’s School of Law who has led a number of Jewish dialogues with other faiths, said the use of the term “Palestine” was the product of an evolution in how the international community is treating the Palestinian question.

“De facto, the Vatican has accepted Palestine as a state,” he said. “It just adds one more country to the over 130 that have recognized Palestine.”

The issue is a matter of diplomacy and does not breach the sensitive issues under discussion between Jews and Catholics as they mark the 50th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate, the declaration that absolved Jews of responsibility for Jesus’ death, Breger said.

“It’s a minor event,” he said. “It should not interfere with Jewish-Catholic relations.”

Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, disagreed, telling the Washington Post that the “Palestine” reference amounted to “appeasement of radical Muslims” and signaled “the historical Catholic enmity towards Jews.”

For the most part, however, Jewish organizations dealing with the Vatican were concerned about the statement, but only insofar as it represented another success in efforts by the Palestinians to secure statehood recognition outside the context of negotiations with Israel.

“We are fully cognizant of the Pope’s good will and desire to be a voice for peaceful coexistence, which is best served, we believe, by encouraging a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, rather than unilateral gestures outside the framework of the negotiating table,” David Harris, the American Jewish Committee director, said in a statement.

Weighing in with similar state­ments were the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organiz­ations, B’nai Brith International  and the Union for Reform Judaism.

Obama administration officials continue to maintain that recognizing Palestine outside the context of peace talks is counterproductive.

However, prompted in part by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netan­yahu’s seeming election eve retreat from supporting a two-state solution, they say they now will not dismiss withholding the U.S. veto should the U.N. Security Council consider a Palestinian statehood resolution.

Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who also has been involved in Jewish-Catholic dialogue, puts a further spin on the matter.

He said the Vatican recognition of Palestine is another manifestation of European disaffection with Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish policies and the expansion of settlements.

“It just puts more pressure on the Israeli government,” Reich said.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief