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PictureDavid Michaels

On Wednesday, news reports from Rome heralded word that the Vatican was recognizing “Palestine” as a state. Coming from the world’s highest profile religious entity – focal point of 1.2 billion Catholics and the sovereign domain of a particularly popular pope – those monitoring the intersection of major-faith relations and international politics might have seen in the step a dramatic jolt to the Middle East status quo. 

But the Vatican “recognition,” ill-advised prize though it is for the Palestinian leadership, is not exactly the path-breaking development some assume – and it is not likely to impact the actual circumstances of Palestinians and Israelis.

What press outlets have characterized as a treaty extending Vatican recognition to a Palestinian state – a state that doesn’t yet exist and would of necessity have to result from Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that Palestinians have spurned – was not so much an establishing of diplomatic ties between two countries but an agreement to protect “the life and activity of the Catholic Church in Palestine.” The wide-ranging institutional interests of Catholic communities, and assurance of their religious freedom, are, after all, primary concerns of a global church, not least in a region where the Christian minority is increasingly beleaguered.

To be sure, the so-called Comprehensive Agreement, negotiations over which were initiated with the Palestine Liberation Organization – precursor to the Palestinian Authority, and longtime claimant to recognition as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” – will officially be signed by the president of the self-styled “State of Palestine,” Mahmoud Abbas, who also conveniently heads the PLO and the PA. And the addition of effective Holy See recognition of his “State,” beyond the similar nods he has collected across Latin America, Europe and beyond, will embolden Abbas in his explicit strategy of circumventing engagement with Israel and allow him to attempt to present a political achievement to his constituency. 

Notably, the Palestinian nationalist movement has consistently sought to portray itself as the champion and rightful home of indigenous Muslims and Christians alike – and to portray a disfigured Israel as a usurper “apartheid” state bent on “Judaizing” Jerusalem.

But, for starters, the Vatican, little noticed by most, had already been referring to the “State of Palestine” even when Pope Francis visited the Palestinian territories, and neighboring countries, in 2014. The Holy See, itself an observer state at the United Nations, welcomed the UN General Assembly’s vote in 2012 to upgrade the status of “Palestine” – already privileged among the world’s nationalist groups with a PLO observer seat at the UN – to that of an observer “State of Palestine.” 

Indeed, it was Pope John Paul II, beloved among Jews and others, who, beginning in 1982, helped legitimate the leadership of the PLO’s Yasser Arafat and to make more mainstream the Palestinian national cause. Maintaining a post existing since 1948, the Vatican has had an “apostolic delegate to Jerusalem and Palestine,” based in Jerusalem, and an apostolic nuncio (or ambassador) to Israel, seated in Tel Aviv; it also receives a Palestinian ambassador (thus far called “representative”) in Rome. 

The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem – the Catholic archdiocese of the Holy Land, populated largely by Arab believers – has for nearly three decades been led by Arab patriarchs often outspoken in alignment with Palestinian political positions. Finally, Pope Francis himself – notwithstanding his warm friendship with Jews, particularly in his native Argentina – made waves during his 2014 visit by posing unexpectedly at an imposing section of Israel’s much-maligned security barrier. He also reserved comments addressed to “those who suffer most” from the conflict for the Palestinian portion of his pilgrimage, and forcefully affirmed support for Palestinian statehood alongside Israel.

The new agreement between the church and the Palestinians, which came on the eve of Abbas’s arrival in Rome for the canonization of two nuns who lived in Ottoman-era Palestine, does not, then, quite signal the novel event some assumed. It certainly will not hasten progress on the ground. 

By joining in delivering unearned, unrequited returns to Abbas, the Vatican risks helping to remove incentives for Abbas, whose mainly symbolic victories have not bought him acclaim from his people, to pursue essential compromise rather than confrontation with Israel. Premature, unilateral foreign recognitions of “Palestine,” breaking with prior international insistence upon direct negotiation of peace, also suggest a disconnect from reality. 

The circumstances of Israelis and Palestinians, and the non-existence of a Palestinian state, remain largely unchanged owing to the strength of Palestinian fanatics like Hamas, the Islamist terror group that seized control of the Gaza Strip from the PA. Vatican disregard for this disturbing fact is unfortunate at a time when the Holy See has taken an uncharacteristically, but entirely understandable, hard line on ISIS fanatics endangering Christians elsewhere in the region.     

This said, Israel – which is accustomed to a sense that Palestinian positions are deemed infallible internationally, and which has worked to conclude its own complex agreement with the Vatican on tax issues related to church properties in the country – is not likely to react heatedly to the Holy See’s approach to the Palestinians.

If anything, it is particularly lamentable, though not cause for surprise, that the content of the Vatican agreement with the Palestinians reportedly includes the eastern part of Jerusalem in the territory to which it relates – when no part of Israel’s capital has come to be Palestinian-governed under existing agreements. 

Moreover, the deepening of Vatican ties with the “State of Palestine” coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council document that helped to positively transform the relationship between Catholics, as well as other Christians, and Jews. 

The marking of that breakthrough, though, will continue – a breakthrough that, while arguably imperfect and incomplete, enabled a once-unimagined engagement between the church and not only the Jewish people but also their reborn state.

David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B’nai B’rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University.To view some of his additional content, Click Here.