Israel Agrees to Reopen Mt. Zion Talks with Vatican

PM Olmert will meet in the Vatican this week with Pope Benedict - two weeks after Israeli diplomats confirmed the reopening of talks over th

Hillel Fendel , | updated: 10:14 AM

"In a move that surprised observers," reports, "Israel has agreed to re-launch negotiations with the Holy See over church status in the Holy Land that have been stalled since the Olmert government came to power."

A year ago, Arutz-7 reported that a Foreign Ministry official admitted that a blueprint of an agreement with the Vatican giving it control of parts of Mt. Zion in Jerusalem - also known as King David's burial site - had been received. The proposed contract read as follows:
"The State of Israel hands over to the Holy See the use of the Cenacle [the room of the event known as the Last Supper, above King David's tomb - ed.], 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."

At the time, President Moshe Katzav was about to embark on a visit to the Vatican. In the face of increasing public pressure, he was forced to deny any plans to sign away the King David's complex in Jerusalem. It now appears, however, that this option has once again surfaced.

AsiaNews reported late last month that Israel and the Holy See "have agreed to hold negotiating sessions of their 'Bilateral Permanent Working Commission' in December and in January - after the Olmert Government had, in effect, declined to do so ever since taking office last spring... The news is being received with relief, and with cautious optimism, in Church circles."

The paper reported that "there were apprehensions that the protracted negotiations (begun on 11 March 1999) required by the 1993 Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel, might be suspended indefinitely - with incalculable consequences, both for the Catholic institutions in Israel and for the bilateral relationship."

Church's Steady and Discreet Efforts Pay Off
"It is not known precisely what caused [Israel's] sudden change of attitude," AsiaNews reported, "though it is understood that the Vatican had never given up on its steady (though characteristically discreet) diplomatic efforts. Furthermore, it has often been reported in the media that both the American Catholic Church and influential components of the U.S. Government - at the Department of State, in the Congress, and in the White House itself - have been encouraging Israel constantly to make sure it is faithful to its international commitments vis-a-vis the Holy See and the Catholic Church."

At present, since shortly after the Six-Day War in 1967, the Diaspora Yeshiva is located on Mt. Zion, and has long warned of the catastrophic implications for Israel if the deal goes through. "This is an enormous issue that is being pushed through without any public debate whatsoever," Yeshiva Director Rabbi Shabtai Herman told Arutz-7 last year.

Rabbi Herman explained that if the Catholic Church receives control of the area, just a few hundred yards from the Temple Mount and adjacent to the Old City walls, it will turn it into "the international center for Catholics all around the world - and if the pope just gives the word, Christians will be flocking over here en masse."

Rabbi Mordechai Goldstein, who founded and still runs the Diaspora Yeshiva, officially known as Yeshiva Toras Yisrael, elaborated in a follow-up discussion with Arutz-7:
"According to their bible, the land is to return to the Christians, and 144,000 Jews are to return to Mt. Zion. So their plan is for them to take control of the site, and then to announce that they are holding a mass reenactment of the Last Supper, with [all types of religious rituals], and to invite millions of Christians to come to Jerusalem and celebrate." He said that this means much tourism money for Israel, and that someone in the Israeli government is apparently very interested in making this happen.

The King David's Tomb complex is a complex of buildings of some 100,000 square feet where David and Solomon, and kings of Judea, are said to be buried. "It is certainly one of the holiest spots in the Land of Israel," Rabbi Herman said. "We've already given away the Temple Mount and the Machpelah Cave, except for here and there when we're allowed in; now they want to give Mt. Zion away as well? For thousands of years, this area was almost always totally closed off to Jews. G-d gave it back to us in 1948, but parts of it were still in range and sight of Jordanian snipers and were not in full use. After 1967, Rabbi Goldstein founded the Diaspora Yeshiva here - and it became an island of holiness, the first yeshiva for baalei teshuvah [newly religious] in Israel; we were there day and night learning Torah. Rabbi Goldstein was almost prophetic in establishing this yeshiva at that time at that spot; destiny from above intertwined him with Mt. Zion."

Rabbi Herman said that the above plan is merely the first step of a larger plan to turn all of Mt. Zion into a Christian site. He explained that the lower level of the complex, containing many chambers, rooms, passageways and the like, has long been under the control of Israeli bodies such as the Lands Authority, and that half of the area was assigned to the Diaspora Yeshiva.

MK Benny Elon (National Union), who served twice as Minister of Tourism, told Arutz-7's Hebrew newsmagazine, "This issue was raised several years ago. When I was Tourism Minister, I made it clear to a representative of the Pope that we would allow them to use one room with a side entrance that would not bother the yeshiva. But under no circumstances would we allow the transfer of ownership. But they said they want ownership, and that the Pope sees this place as the second-holiest, after the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We have to be very strong and not give in to the Vatican on this."