Netanyahu heads for Rome to meet Pope, Italian PM

In first meeting, Francis and Israeli premier are expected to discuss peace talks, Iran and a pontifical visit to Jerusalem

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Pope Francis attends a vigil for peace in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, on Saturday, September 7, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Riccardo De Luca)
Pope Francis attends a vigil for peace in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, on Saturday, September 7, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Riccardo De Luca)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Israel Sunday morning for a working trip to Rome, where he will meet with Pope Francis and the Italian prime minister, Enrico Letta.

Netanyahu is expected to invite the pope to Israel.

The meeting will be the prime minister’s first with the current pope, who met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in October at the Vatican and with President Shimon Peres in April. Netanyahu met with the previous pope, Benedict XVI, in 2009, as well as with Pope John Paul II in 1997.

Six government ministers are joining Netanyahu on the trip and will meet with the Italian government.

The pope and the prime minister will likely discuss negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and security threats Jerusalem faces in the region, and recent European legislation banning circumcision and kosher slaughter, said Murray Watson, a Christian-Jewish relations expert.

“The Vatican’s support for the Jewish community in various European countries, where either kosher slaughter or circumcision have recently been called into question or forbidden by law” would likely come up, said Watson, a co-founder of the Centre for Jewish-Catholic-Muslim Learning at King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario. “I suspect that this is an issue where the pope would want to demonstrate his active solidarity with Europe’s Jews, and to use whatever diplomatic and moral influence he has, to reject those trends, which are sometimes indicative of a larger, more worrisome xenophobia or marginalization of those deemed to be ‘the other’.”

The two will also likely discuss the recently brokered nuclear deal in Geneva between Iran and six world powers, he said.

Attempts to bring about a meeting between the two world leaders have not gone entirely smoothly. In October, Netanyahu’s office issued a statement announcing that the prime minister would be meeting with the pope at the Vatican shortly thereafter to discuss nuclear talks with Iran and the ongoing peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

However, it later emerged that the PMO’s announcement was premature; there were no confirmed plans for a meeting with the pontiff, which typically has to be scheduled further in advance.

Peres and Abbas both invited the pontiff to Israel and the Palestinian territories, and Francis has said he would like to visit the Middle East.

Abraham Skorka, a rabbi closely affiliated with the leader of the Catholic world, said in October that the pope aimed to visit Israel in March 2014. Skorka said that Francis’s “lifelong dream” was to visit the Holy Land and “to embrace” the rabbi in front of the Western Wall.

Around that time, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) met Pope Francis in the Vatican, and invited him to Israel and to the Knesset.

Francis replied emphatically, “I’ll come! I’ll come!”

Pope Francis’s visit would coincide with the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s visit to Jerusalem in 1964, which took place before the Vatican recognized the State of Israel.

The future trip would mark Francis’s second visit to the Holy Land. He arrived here in 1973, just as the Yom Kippur War broke out. As The Times of Israel revealed in April, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (as he was then) spent six days confined to his Jerusalem hotel, studying the Letters of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.

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