Vatican signs treaty recognizing State of Palestine

Vatican signs treaty recognizing State of Palestine

Angry Israel says 'hasty step damages the prospects for advancing a peace agreement'

Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during an audience at the Vatican Saturday, May 16, 2015.(Alberto Pizzoli/Pool Photo via AP)
Pope Francis exchanges gifts with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during an audience at the Vatican Saturday, May 16, 2015.(Alberto Pizzoli/Pool Photo via AP)

The Vatican on Friday signed a historic accord with Palestine, two years after officially recognizing it as a state, in a move criticized by the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

The accord, a treaty covering the life and activity of the Church in Palestine, was the first since the Vatican recognized the Palestinian state in February 2013. The step was agreed in principle last month and condemned by Israel as a setback for the peace process.

The Foreign Ministry said Friday in response that it “regrets” the Vatican’s decision to sign the “one-sided” text.

“This hasty step damages the prospects for advancing a peace agreement, and harms the international effort to convince the PA to return to direct negotiations with Israel,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

“We also regret the one-sided texts in the agreement which ignore the historic rights of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel and to the places holy to Judaism in Jerusalem. Israel cannot accept the unilateral determinations in the agreement which do not take into account Israel’s essential interests and the special historic status of the Jewish people in Jerusalem,” the statement added.

“The Palestinians continue to act unilaterally which distances us from any chance of holding direct dialogue,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely.

“I regret that the Vatican decided to participate in a step that blatantly ignores the history of the Jewish people in Israel and Jerusalem. Any attempt by the Palestinians, or any other actor to undermine our historic right to Jerusalem and our country will met by staunch opposition by us,” she said.

The treaty 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 Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi last month.

Israeli officials criticized the Vatican announcement in May.

“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 at the time.

“Israel will study the agreement and consider its next steps accordingly,” a brief statement from the ministry said.

The text of the treaty deals with essential aspects of the life and activity of the Catholic Church in Palestine, a Vatican statement said in May.

“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,” it noted.

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 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, AP contributed to this report.

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