Pope John PaulWhen Jewish and or Israeli delegations come to Rome to visit the Pope they are inevitably surprised by the cordial reception extended to them. The shadow of history seems to fall on today’s reality, almost as if the spectre of past humiliations and discriminations were a constant traveling companion.

For those who have been following Vatican diplomacy in Rome for the past two decades, the profound transformation in the Vatican’s attitude towards the entire non-Catholic world (and not just Jewish or Israeli) ever since the Second Ecumenical Council, is obvious, and easy to observe, from the broad directives to the very fine details in whose context the Roman Catholic Church expresses itself.

In the halls of Vatican City, Israeli visitors will always be greeted with a smiling “Shalom” by Pope John Paul II, as they were by Pope Paul VI; and Arab representatives will also be greeted with a friendly “Saalam”. (The Pope reads out his “Good Christmas” greeting every year in 30 or more languages, including various dialects of India and Africa.)

The Vatican, the only religious state to have survived for nearly 2000 years, today bases its every nuance in international diplomacy on its aspirations towards universality.

All non-Catholics are considered by the Vatican hierarchy as “spiritual children,” with a professedly “special relationship,” towards the monotheistic children” who are also Catholicism’s ancestors), to be dealt with by a myriad of official Vatican commissions and secretariats created by the Second Ecuminical Council expressly for this purpose.

Form And Content

Jewish and Israeli representatives sometimes fail to perceive that while the forms taken by Vatican communications will always be marked by impeccable civility, the contents will vary according to a logical desire to keep all parties at points of equidistance, clearly defined in previous documents issued by the Vatican on the various issues involved.

Thus, there is nothing new in the Vatican’s demand for “a special statute with international guarantees” for Jerusalem. The Vatican has long ceased demanding an “internationalization” of the city, but neither is it about to accept a “unilateral” (or not “agreed upon”) action on Jerusalem’s destiny.

Nor can it officially accept Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights because this means Israel is not “sticking to international conventions,” as was noted in the long Vatican press communique released after Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s audience with the Pope last Thursday.

Dealing With A Specific Encounter

The length of that communique and its prompt appearance in the official Vatican press organ, Osservatore Romano, are both signs of the exceptional importance given to the encounter. Within the very carefully chosen and moderate summing-up of both sides’ views in the Vatican’s version of the audience, several points emerge.

The Vatican apparently took in the “information briefing” on Israel’s positions given by Shamir with good grace, and in return, made several demands of Israel. In addition to its request that Israel make no further “one-sided moves” of annexation, it is asking Israel to extend “the peace negotiation process to all interested parties” and to improve the quality of its relationship to its Palestinian population.

The exact words are- “An efficient contribution would be for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to enjoy conditions of serenity in full respect of all rights.” “Moderation” is demanded of Israel in regard to Lebanon, to help, along with “all parties,” to give their “contributions for extending and consolidating the truce that has been achieved for several months in that region …”

For those ever on the alert for fine points in the Vatican’s selection of words, it is noted that while the Vatican has not yet officially recognized Israel it freely speaks of “The State of Israel.” This press release which makes reference to a “just a and fair solution” to the Palestinian problem also “takes into account the problem of the security of the State of Israel.”

Getting Around Difficulties

By the same token, the belabored preference of one verb over another in reporting Shamir’s outline of Israel’s position on Jerusalem reveals the Vatican’s difficulty in accepting Israel’s “one-sided” claim on Jerusalem. The text states that Minister Shamir “pointed out that the present situation in the Holy City reflects its particular significance in the history of the Jewish people…”The verb “reflects” was obviously typed into a blank space left in the previously printed text. Reportedly the verb actually used by Shamir was “does justice to.”

The communique also takes note of Israel’s concern over “the massive influx of arms in the region and the grave problems of terrorism,” of “the safeguarding and free access to the holy places of all faiths and their self-management” and “Israel’s efforts to assure the well-being of the different communities.”

Israel’s “commitment to reaching a global and just solution to the conflict while safeguarding the security of Israel” and “the efforts and concessions made by Israel” were published as being among the main points of Shamir’s message.

Doubtlessly, Israel’s recent Golan annexation posses a diplomatic problem for the Vatican’s relations with the Arab world. But the Vatican is no longer willing to interrupt its flow of dialogue with Israel and world Jewry, just as it is not willing to interrupt good relations with the Arab world, including the Palestine Liberation Organization.

It will continue to practice the fine art of diplomatic equidistance, summoning up all its ancient intellectual know-how, but it will never again regress to pre-ecumenical positions or forms.