Israeli Anger at Vatican Recognition of Palestine

  • Middle East Policy

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The visit of Pope Francis to Palestine — and his subsequent recognition of the State of Palestine and canonization of two Ottoman-era Palestinian nuns — has attracted scathing criticism from Israeli observers. Many of them see the move as political and self-serving, while some see it as a hostile act in a difficult relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people. Many Israeli op-eds urge a forceful and swift response, lest the status of the occupied Palestinian territories become an international issue out of Tel Aviv’s control. For Palestinian commentators, the Pope’s visit and words are seen as vindication and reaffirmation of Palestinian rights.

Jerusalem Post’s Michael Freund makes no effort to hide his displeasure regarding last week’s treaty between the Vatican and Palestine, arguing that by signing the treaty “the Catholic Church fired the latest salvo in its 2,000-year-old struggle to disenfranchise the Jewish people. Meeting with Palestinian officials at the Vatican, church officials agreed to formally recognize the ‘State of Palestine’ as part of a deal concerning Catholic activities in the Palestinian-controlled areas….Israel needs to respond to this affront forcefully. We cannot stand by and watch as our national integrity is called into question. A good place to start would be to withdraw our ambassador to the Holy See, curtail the number of visas granted to Vatican officials, and rule out any possibility of giving the Church the foothold it so sorely wants at the Tomb of King David on Mount Zion.”

In an op-ed for the Yedioth Ahronoth, Noah Klieger echoes Freund’s recommendation that the State of Israel should respond to the Pope’s statement forcefully, especially following the Pope’s designation of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as an “Angel of Peace”: “The conclusion from this statement is that His Holiness is either a very naive person or hasn’t the slightest idea about what has been happening in the Middle East for almost 70 years. Otherwise, it’s impossible to understand how an intelligent person could voice such a strange sentence, which contradicts what is happening reality…. If Francis really understood some of what is happening in our region, he could have, for example, asked the ‘angel of peace’ from Ramallah why is it that over the years almost all the Christians have escaped-emigrated from the territories controlled by the Palestinians, while in Israel hundreds of thousands of Christians live peacefully and enjoy full freedom of religion.”

But one should not be surprised by the Vatican’s position, argues Arutz Sheva’s Giulio Meotti, who claims that “[d]espite the fact that there are many Catholics around the world who share a pro-Israel attitude, the Catholic Church has always been at war with the Jewish State and did everything in its power to prevent its establishment and then to derail it….I could go on with this list of Vatican’s attempts to derail the creation and survival of the State of Israel. Emanuel Ringelblum, the great historian of Polish Jewry who was killed during the Holocaust, noted that during the war ‘when the blood of Jewish students was shed and anti-Semitic savages rioted, the clergy either kept silent or approved these deeds.’…Those words, pronounced by a hero of the Warsaw ghetto, could be used also today for the Vatican’s indifference to Israel’s mortal siege. And just as it did in World War II, by choosing to recognize the ‘State of Palestine,’ the Vatican made common cause with an evil Palestinian Arab Islamic power in a vain attempt to buy temporary security for its own communities.”

However, many Jewish organizations see the move not in terms of the Catholic-Jewish relations, but of the increasingly accommodating position taking by the West with regards to Palestinian statehood. As Ron Kampeas points out in a recent Times of Israel op-ed, “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….Daniel Mariaschin, the director of B’nai B’rith International, said the recognition of Palestine raised concerns, but they must be seen in the context of an increased willingness in Europe to recognize Palestinian statehood and not of Jewish-Catholic relations…Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who also has been involved in Jewish-Catholic dialogue, said the Palestine recognition should serve as a ‘wake-up call’ for Israel….[H]e argued, Vatican recognition of Palestine is another manifestation of European disaffection with Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish policies and the expansion of settlements.”

Fearing the impact that a Palestinian state would have on Israel, Jerusalem Post’s Louis Rene Beres urges his own government to become less accommodating to EU guidelines for negotiations: “In part, at least, the advancing drift to legal symmetry between Israel and Palestine is the direct result of persistently concessionary policies fashioned in Jerusalem. But Israel can still learn some important and potentially remediating lessons from its myriad Oslo mistakes….Above all, Jerusalem must begin to argue vigorously against European Union guidelines, insisting that Palestine’s borders never be based upon pre-1967 lines….Accordingly, Jerusalem should finally affirm that Israeli settlement activity is entirely consistent with international law, and also that those jailed Palestinian terrorists who have murdered Israeli civilians will never be released as any so-called ‘good will gesture.’ There is, in short, no defensible reason for Jerusalem to continue its participation in an asymmetrically suicidal diplomacy.”

Meanwhile, as Ma’an News’ Charlie Hoyle reports, in Palestine, the Pope’s visit and the canonization of two Palestinian nuns has been seen as a signal by the Vatican that it might become more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations: “Rifaat Kassis, a prominent political community activist and coordinator of Kairos, a local Christian group, says the canonization is significant on many levels, notwithstanding the recognition that Palestinians under Ottoman rule were part of a diverse, productive society, contrary to the mainstream sidelining of Palestinians from the region’s history. ‘This puts Palestine on the map, among not only the catholic world, but the whole world, and I think this will also help people to understand Palestine and the occupation,’ he told Ma’an. Whether the Vatican recognition of the saints was politically motivated or not, the event signals a desire by Pope Francis to get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kassis added, something he views as a ‘positive sign’.”

But Issa Kassissieh, writing for Palestinian News Network, believes that more than anything else, the Pope’s actions and words are a recognition of the Palestinian people and their “commitment to justice, love, and peace”: “To talk about Sisters Marie-Alphonsine Ghattas and Mariam Baouardy is to talk about the struggle of the Palestinian people to be on its own land, and particularly of the situation of Palestinian Christians…. When celebrating the canonization of Marie-Alphonsine and Mariam Baouardy, we are celebrating the Palestinian commitment to justice, freedom, love and peace. We celebrate their actions and blessings, just as we celebrate the work of hundreds of Palestinian Christian religious leaders such as Patriarch Michael Sabbah and others for the achievement of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. It is a celebration that combines the past and the future of the local church including the Catholic one in Palestine, which is directly linked to the history of those they serve: the people of Palestine and their national liberation struggle.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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