President Shimon Peres is pressuring Interior Minister Eli Yishai to sign away six properties demanded by the Vatican, including Mt. Tabor and a church in Nazareth, according to IDF Army Radio.
The Vatican has long demanded that Israel give it these and other properties, while Israel has refused. With the visit of Pope Benedict XVI only a week away, tensions between the sides are rising.
Minister Yishai, of the Sephardic hareidi-religious Shas party, has thus far refused to give his approval – and staffers in the President’s office say they’ll seek a legal way to give away the areas without Yishai’s approval, IDF Army Radio reports. An official denial of the report has been issued by the President’s office.
Israel and the Vatican have been negotiating for more than ten years on various fiscal issues, including taxation of Church properties, the removal of certain areas from the pool of areas that Israel might confiscate, and the transfer of specific places to Vatican control.
The six places that Peres believes Israel should give the Vatican are: Mt. Tabor, Capernaum and Mt. of Beatitudes on the north Kinneret shore, and three churches: Gethsemane (Gat Shmanim) Church in the Kidron (Jehoshaphat) Valley between the Old City and Mt. of Olives, the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, and one in Tamra.
In addition, the Vatican demands control over the Last Supper Room in the Mt. Zion building that houses King David’s Tomb. The building was granted to the Diaspora Yeshiva over 40 years ago, and yeshiva heads fear that the Catholic Church wishes to turn it into a pilgrimage site for hundreds of thousands of Catholics and hold religious services there. Peres did not include this site on the list of those he feels Israel should give the Vatican.
Tourism Minister: No
Tourism Minister Stas Mesezhnikov, of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, told IDF Army Radio that he objects to giving gifts of this nature to the Church. He explained that his objections are not necessarily religious or ideological: “If we would be sure that this would bring millions of Christian pilgrims, then we would have cause to think about it. But since we can’t be sure that this will happen, why should we give them gifts?”
Giving the properties away means that Israel will not be able to pave roads or lay electricity and other infrastructures without Vatican approval.
An initiative is underway to garner Knesset Members’ signatures on a petition calling on Yishai not to give in to the President’s pressure, and averring that no one has the right to give away Israel’s sovereign territory to a foreign entity.
“Every concession of this nature is a blow to Israel’s ability to act as a sovereign state in these areas,” Minister Yishai told IDF Army Radio in response. “I am sure that the Pope’s visit will not be harmed even if we do not give away our sovereignty.”
IDF Army Radio then sought out a reaction from Yossi Beilin, a Peres protégé and former head of the ultra-left Meretz party. “We have dragged our feet long enough in the negotiations with the Vatican,” Beilin said, “and it’s time for us to go towards the Church in this and other matters.”
Expert: Forbidden to Give In
Prof. Yitzchak Minerbi, an author and expert on Israel-Vatican relations, told Israel National News, “Even if some Vatican sources threaten to call off the visit if we do not give in – and there are definitely some elements there who don’t want the visit to happen – this is no reason to give in... In my opinion, it is clear that this pope is more friendly to the Arabs, and particularly to the Palestinians, than he is to Israel.”
Minerbi said that Israel is wrong for not giving in on the matter of tax exemptions for churches, “because whatever we can buy with money, let’s just buy. But regarding religion or ideology – we must not give in even one iota. And that’s why I object to the agreement signed in 1993 between Israel and the Vatican, which practically begins with the words, ‘in awareness of the historic process of reconciliation between Catholics and Jews.’ When we say reconciliation, we mean an understanding between equals – but the Catholics understand it to mean that they will swallow and convert us. We – government officials and rabbis - must do our homework better!”
Regarding Mt. Zion, Prof. Minerbi is equally admant: "The arrangement there is one one that has worked for over 150 years - namely, the status quo set in place all the way back in 1852. There are many competing claims there between various churches, etc., and if any small change is made, it can rock the whole structure."