Representatives of the State of Israel and the Vatican who have been negotiating fiscal and property matters for over ten years met today for their semi-annual high-level meeting, and once again reported “significant progress.”

Nothing was signed, and another meeting was scheduled for Dec. 10 at the Vatican.

The meeting was co-chaired by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and Monsignor Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Undersecretary of State for Relations with States.  

The negotiators, who comprise a council called the Bilateral Permanent Working Commission, have been meeting since 1999 to try to resolve fiscal matters concerning taxation of Church property in Israel.  The Fundamental Agreement between the Vatican and Israel, signed in 1993, stipulates that a consensus on these matters must be reached within two years. 

Today, nearly 16 years later, negotiations are still underway.

Asked if the question of control over the Last Supper room, in the building housing King David’s Tomb on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, is close to being resolved, a Foreign Ministry delegate to the meeting answered in the negative.

Shmuel Ben-Shmuel, Head of the World Jewish Affairs and Interreligious Affairs Department at Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, told Israel National News, “The question of control over the two rooms above David’s Tomb is something that they raise from time to time, but it is not the subject of these negotiations, nor has Israel shown any signs of ceding its full sovereignty over these areas.”

He did not say if this issue is being discussed in another Vatican-Israel forum. 

Another source close to the talks added that one reason why Israel has no interest in changing the status quo at Mt. Zion is because other churches, as well as the Waqf Muslim authority, would then also make demands of their own.

Similarly, Deputy Minister Ayalon told Rabbi Pesach Lerner, Executive Vice President of Young Israel, that the issue is simply not on the table.

Reports from other sources had said that the Vatican’s demands for control over the Last Supper Room, as well as for the hand-over of a list of other areas near the Kinneret Lake and in Jerusalem and Ceasaria, are still quite extant.

The Vatican proposal for running the Last Supper Room, in the building run by the Diaspora Yeshiva, was submitted as early as 2005. It reads:

"The State of Israel hands over to the Holy See the use of the Cenacle [the Last Supper room], of the access path to it, and of the spaces adjacent to it... It is the Holy See's intention to inform the Bishops - and through them the world's Priests - that the Catholic Church has been given the use of the Cenacle, inviting them to visit the Holy Place together with their faithful... The Holy See hands over this use of the Cenacle to the Custody of the Holy Land [which acts on behalf of the Holy See]... [which] will keep the Cenacle open from 6 AM to 8 AM for the celebration of the Holy Mass... Official liturgical celebrations of non-Catholic Churches can take place only upon prior written permission by the Custody of the Holy Land."

As stated, the Foreign Ministry categorically denies any intention to accept this arrangement.

Other members of the Israeli delegation to the high-level meeting included Oded Brook, Head of the International Affairs Division of the Ministry of Finance, and Bahij Mansour, Director of Inter-religious Affairs Department at the Foreign Ministry.

On the Vatican team was Archbishop Antonio Franco, Apostolic Nuncio in Israel, who chairs the Commission at the “working level,” as well as Patriarchal Vicar Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo.

An announcement released following the Plenary meeting stated that it was held “in an atmosphere of great friendship and a spirit of cooperation and good will” and that it had “achieved significant progress, on the eve of the upcoming important visit of the Pope in Jerusalem.”  It was agreed to hold the next Plenary meeting on December 10, 2009, at the Vatican. Lower-level meetings will reportedly be held approximately every 1-2 months until then, with the goal of “accelerat[ing] the talks and conclud[ing] the Agreement at the earliest opportunity.”

Last week, the Vatican and the Arab League signed an agreement in Rome, aiming to “strengthen collaboration for peace, security and stability in the region and to favor inter-religious dialogue.”

The agreement was signed by Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League, and the Pope’s “Foreign Minister,” Msgr. Dominique Mamberti.  Moussa was received, after the signing, in private audience by Pope Benedict XVI.

A Vatican communiqué said that the agreement “further consolidates the bonds of co-operation that exist between the Holy See and the League of Arab States, especially on the political and cultural levels, in favour of peace, security, and regional and international stability.”