The Vatican officially recognized the state of Palestine in a new treaty Wednesday, drawing criticism from Jerusalem.
The treaty, which was finalized Wednesday but still has to be signed, makes clear that the Holy See has switched its diplomatic relations from the Palestinian Liberation Organization to the state of Palestine.
The Vatican had welcomed the decision by the UN General Assembly in 2012 to recognize a Palestinian state.
But the treaty is the first legal document negotiated between the Holy See and the Palestinian state and constitutes an official recognition.
“Yes, it’s a recognition that the state exists,” said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
Israeli officials criticized the Vatican announcement.
“We’re disappointed by the decision taken by the Holy See. We believe that such a decision is not conducive to bringing the Palestinians back to the negotiating table,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon told The Times of Israel.
“Israel will study the agreement and consider its next steps accordingly,” a brief statement from the ministry said.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is due to see Pope Francis on Saturday before the canonization of two new saints from the Holy Land a day later.
The text of the treaty “deals with essential aspects of the life and activity of the Catholic Church in Palestine,” a Vatican statement said Wednesday.
“Both Parties agreed that the work of the Commission on the text of the Agreement has been concluded, and that the agreement will be submitted to the respective authorities for approval ahead of setting a date in the near future for the signing.”
The Vatican has been referring unofficially to the state of Palestine for at least a year.
During Pope Francis’ 2014 visit to the Holy Land, the Vatican’s official program referred to Abbas as the president of the “state of Palestine.” In the Vatican’s latest yearbook, the Palestinian ambassador to the Holy See is listed as representing “Palestine (state of).”
The Vatican’s foreign minister, Monsignor Antoine Camilleri, acknowledged the change in status, given that the treaty was initially inked with the PLO and is now being finalized with the “state of Palestine.” But he said the shift was simply in line with the Holy See’s position.
The Holy See clearly tried to underplay the development, suggesting that its 2012 press statement welcoming the UN vote constituted its first official recognition. Nowhere in that statement does the Vatican say it recognizes the state of Palestine, and the Holy See couldn’t vote for the UN resolution because it doesn’t have voting rights at the General Assembly.
The Vatican’s efforts to downplay the move seemed justified given the swift condemnation of the development by Israeli groups: The American Jewish Committee said it was “counterproductive to all who seek true peace between Israel and the Palestinians.” The Anti-Defamation League said it was “premature.”
“We appreciate that the Vatican’s basic intention is to promote Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, but believe that this diplomatic recognition will be unhelpful to that end,” the ADL’s Abraham Foxman said.
The 2012 UN vote recognized Palestine as a non-member observer state, made up of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
The Palestinians celebrated the vote as a milestone in their quest for international recognition. Most countries in Africa, Asia and South America have individually recognized Palestine. In Western Europe, Sweden took the step last year, while several parliaments have approved non-binding motions urging recognition.
This isn’t the first time that the Vatican under Francis has taken diplomatic moves knowing that it would please some quarters and ruffle feathers elsewhere: Just last month, he referred to the slaughter of Armenians by Turkish Ottomans a century ago as a “genocide,” prompting Turkey to recall its ambassador.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.