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Israel Decidedly Unhappy With Vatican-Palestine Treaty

The Vatican solidifies its relationship with Palestine, and Israel isn't happy.

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK - MAY 25: In this handout image supplied by the Palestinian Press Ofiice (PPO) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greets Pope Francis on May 25, 2014, Ramallah, West Bank. Pope Francis addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as "unacceptable" and urged both sides to find courage in seeking a peaceful solution.  (Photo by Thaer Ghanaim/PPO via Getty Images)
RAMALLAH, WEST BANK - MAY 25: In this handout image supplied by the Palestinian Press Ofiice (PPO) Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greets Pope Francis on May 25, 2014, Ramallah, West Bank. Pope Francis addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as "unacceptable" and urged both sides to find courage in seeking a peaceful solution. (Photo by Thaer Ghanaim/PPO via Getty Images)

Pope Francis has decided to make the Catholic Church’s feelings about Palestine official.

On Friday, the Vatican signed a comprehensive treaty with Palestinian authorities, formalizing a basic agreement between the Catholic Church and the PLO back in 2000. In essence, it is a formal declaration of the Holy See’s support for the creation of a Palestinian state and the peace process with Israel. “[I]t is my hope that the present agreement may, in some way, be a stimulus to bringing a definitive end to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which continues to cause suffering for both Parties,” wrote Vatican foreign minister Archbishop Paul Gallagher.

The agreement follows on the Vatican’s decision in May to change the status of its diplomatic relationship with Ramallah, and officially forgo the recognition of the PLO to make way for the State of Palestine. The Catholic Church has referred to a Palestinian state since at least 2012, but the new agreement solidifies the Holy See’s support.

For the Vatican, the decision represents another unabashed and controversial move into the foreign policy arena. It follows efforts to broker Washington’s watershed decision to re-establish relations with Cuba late last year, and the recent release of Pope Francis’ landmark environment-focused encyclical. But it is also a matter of looking after Catholics everywhere. The new agreement specifically notes that it is also meant to deal with “the life and activity of the Church in Palestine.” It also mentions that “Catholics do not seek any privilege other than continued cooperation with their fellow-citizens for the good of society.” As Reuters reported, some 100,000 Catholics live in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, and most of them identify as Palestinians. For the Church, assertively backing the Palestinian cause and the cause of peace, then, is about protecting its own.

The news is not going over well in Tel Aviv. “This hasty step damages the prospects for advancing a peace agreement, and harms the international effort to convince the Palestinian Authority to return to direct negotiations with Israel,” said Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon.

The Israeli government surely knew this was coming. Back in May when the Vatican first signaled a shifting Palestine policy, commentators and pro-Israel writers warned that such decisions would, in fact make the odds of peace less likely. “By granting the Palestinians official recognition without first requiring them to make peace with Israel, Pope Francis and the church have only made it less likely that this will ever happen,” Jonathan Tobin wrote for Commentary magazine on May 13.

Others saw the pope making common cause with the Palestinians as a disturbing return to a horrifying past. “[G]iven its sordid history of anti-Semitism, book-burnings, forced conversions and Inquisitions, the Catholic Church should think a hundred times over before daring to step on Israel’s toes,” wrote Michael Freund, former deputy communications director to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the Jerusalem Post on May 18. “If anything, the pope should be down on his knees pleading for forgiveness from the Jewish people and atonement from the Creator for what the Vatican has wrought over the centuries.”

Israel is also likely frazzled by the Palestinian Authority’s decision to take on Israel at the International Criminal Court (ICC). On Thursday, the PA submitted its first tranche of evidence of alleged war crimes committed by Israel during last year’s war in Gaza to the ICC.

So it seems fair to say there’s a certain amount of distrust clouding the waters. But this is about more than just politics: the Pope has, on repeated occasions, spoken of the plight of Christians fleeing the conflict-ridden Middle East.

Photo credit: PPO / Getty Images News

Siddhartha Mahanta is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. A Texas native and graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, he has also worked for Mother Jones, National Journal, and the PBS Newshour.  @sidhubaba

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