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from issue no. 12 - 2003

EXCLUSIVE. Yossi Beilin tells how the signing was arrived at

The ten years of the Fundamental Agreement

In 1993 the Holy See and Israel signed the Agreement that opened the way to full diplomatic relations. A historic step. That still needs some reconfirmation

by Yossi Beilin

Monsignor Claudio Celli and Yossi Beilin in Jerusalem on 30 Decembeer 1993, during the signing of the Fundamental Agreement

Monsignor Claudio Celli and Yossi Beilin in Jerusalem on 30 Decembeer 1993, during the signing of the Fundamental Agreement

For about a year, from late 1992 to late 1993, I was involved as Foreign Minister in two historic, political processes, which had a certain degree of similarity and which had an influence on one another. The first was the process culminating in the Oslo Agreement, which was signed on 13 September, 1993, on the White House lawn; the other, the negotiations on the Fundamental Agreement between Israel and the Holy See, which was signed on 30 December of the same year. The Oslo process was conducted entirely in the shade: for many months it went on without being made public, an agreement with the Norwegians, who offered their good services as early as Spring 1992. The talks themselves were conducted on my behalf by Yair Hirschfeld and Ron Pundak, who performed this task as private individuals. Only several months later did Uri Savir, then Director-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, begin to conduct the talks, transforming this secret, unofficial channel into a secret, official one.
For the talks with the Holy See, I came to a ready-made situation. These were open talks, launched at the Vatican’s initiative in the summer of 1991, even before the Madrid Conference. It was Archbishop Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, the apostolic delegate in Jerusalem, who announced the Vatican’s intention to initiate negotiations on an agreement with Israel, and he did so in consultation with Dr. David Jaegar, an Israeli Jew who had become a Franciscan priest, with boasted special knowledge in Canon Law.
The initial probes between Israel and the Vatican revealed the main dispute between them: Israel wanted to reach, first of all, an agreement on diplomatic relations between the two states, and only subsequently to discuss questions such as the freedom of religion, Church taxation, education, etc. The Vatican wanted to deal with all the practical matters, and to remove – at least at the first stage – the matter of the diplomatic relations from the agenda.
The meeting of the plenary bi-lateral Commission for the approval of the Agreement on 29 December 1993

The meeting of the plenary bi-lateral Commission for the approval of the Agreement on 29 December 1993

On July 29, 1992, prior to my assuming office [as Deputy Minister ed.] at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the agenda was agreed on, and it was decided to open the negotiations on two levels: at the “experts’ level”, general discussions would take place on all the issues, and at the “plenary level”, discussions would be held dealing solely with the settling of disputes which arose at the experts’ level. The latter would be the level through which the final agreement would be approved. The supreme committee was to be headed by the Vatican’s Undersecretary of State, Monsignor Claudio Celli, and myself; and the experts’ committee was to comprise senior officers of the Foreign Ministry - the Vatican would be represented by Montezemolo, and Israel by Eitan Margalit. When I assumed office, I innocently believed that this would be merely one of many formal assignments in which the role of the Minister or Deputy Minister would be to sign documents that others had prepared. It did not take long before I realized I was wrong.
For me, the first meeting with Monsignor Claudio Celli was of the utmost significance. This tall, bespectacled man, bald as Yul Brynner, exuded warmth and friendliness from the first moment we got talking. We began the meeting with a private discussion, in which I sought to understand what were the objectives of the Holy See, what were its preferences and where the main obstacles lay. I told him that for Israel the key objectives were the common war on anti-Semitism and unequivocal recognition of the State of Israel. He talked about the rights of the Catholic Church in Israel, the guarantee of freedom of worship for Catholics, the legal status of priests, and the special approach of Pope John Paul II, who, as early as 1981, had sent to the President of the State of Israel a blessing for the New Year, and in 1986, had visited the synagogue in Rome – symbolic acts which stressed – alongside a long list of other acts – his special deep respect for Israel and its people. Celli did not want, at this early stage, to deal with the matter of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See, and it was particularly important to him that the agreement to be signed between us would be called the Fundamental Agreement, and not an “Agreement on Principles”, as the Israeli side had proposed.
After our discussion, we went into a larger hall, where the expert teams were waiting. In the course of the larger meeting, I announced that I had given my consent that the agreement between the parties should be called the “Fundamental Agreement”. Various Israeli experts did not hide the fact that they were uncomfortable with my decision. When I tried to understand, at a later point, what possible damage could be caused to Israel by this name, I realized what was going on: since it was of importance to the other party, we should have refused, and granted our consent only in return for something appropriate … I did not agree with that way of negotiating, and I was convinced that in the decision I had made, I had prevented unnecessary obstacles on our way to an agreement.
In the evening, I hosted the negotiators from both sides for dinner. We didn’t linger on the usual small talk, on the contrary, some of the participants immediately began discussing various matters in depth. I spoke about my feelings that day. Having grown up and lived in Tel Aviv, I had hardly ever had the chance to meet, as a child or teenager, any Christians. It was only during visits to Jerusalem that I would see nuns, monks and priests wearing bizarre hats – and I used to feel a deep feeling of strangeness. For years, I believed that there was nothing further from me than the Christian world. Later on, I traveled to Japan, as the Finance Minister, I visited Hiroshima and sat down in a local restaurant. The proprietor of the restaurant asked us where we came from, and we replied: “Israel”. He wrinkled his brow, finding it difficult to recall a name, when suddenly his eyes lit up. He had remembered: “Jesus Christ?”! I nodded, and at that moment I suddenly realized that in the eyes of billions all around the world, it is actually these people, whom I felt to be so far away from me, who are the people identified with my country ….

the Apostolic Nuncio to Israel, Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo and 
The Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy in Jerusalem, 10 December 1997, for the signing of the Agreement on Legal Person

the Apostolic Nuncio to Israel, Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo and The Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy in Jerusalem, 10 December 1997, for the signing of the Agreement on Legal Person

It was a very moving evening. We did not discuss the details of the agreement, rather, we spoke our hearts, with the feeling that we were involved in a surprising and historic process.
The negotiations with the Vatican kept me far busier than I had imagined. In early November 1992, the talks began at the experts’ level and problems immediately appeared – some of style, others of substance – and they were brought to my table. The telephone conversations between Monsignor Celli and myself became increasingly frequent, and I felt that if the negotiations remained as professional talks at the level of experts, they might well go on forever. In December of that year an unofficial channel was opened between the head of my office, Shlomo Gur, and Father David Jaegar. Jaegar, who had participated in the experts’ talks, was aware of the details of the problems, brought them up in conversations with Gur, and proposed solutions; his proposals were weighed by us, and in this manner, we were able to solve a long list of issues which had not been resolved in any other way. For example: as regards the definition of the Catholic Church, the Israeli side requested that this definition relate to the range of Catholic institutions as it existed under Israeli law. The Catholic side insisted on the fact that the definition should include the existing institutions and such institutions as would be set up in the future. The compromise, reached through the unofficial channel, was that the Church could be defined, “inter alia, as the range of institutions” …. The addition of the term “inter alia” also related to what would happen in the future, without specifying it expressly.
Meanwhile, the Oslo process moved into the fast track. It soon transpired that these two sets of negotiations shared a common denominator: the future of reciprocal relations. Until a late stage in the summer of 1993, the Israeli recognition of the PLO was not discussed with the Palestinians. Nevertheless, the closer we got to the moment of truth of the Agreement, the clearer it became that it would not be possible to establish the scope of understandings and then simply transfer the burden to the shoulders of the Israeli delegation and the Palestinian delegation, who were conducting fruitless talks in Washington. As far as the talks with the Vatican were concerned, the question of the diplomatic relations hovered over all the discussions; we all knew that the matter had to be discussed seriously, and the problem would be the nature of those relations, however, we preferred to save it for the end of the negotiations.
In October 1993, a month after the signing of the Oslo Agreement, the matter of diplomatic relations became much simpler for the Vatican. A few issues still remained open, not only in the official talks, but also in the unofficial channel (such as the precise wording for the war on anti-Semitism and the question of Church education). In order to resolve these issues, a secret meeting was arranged between myself and Archbishop Jean Louis Tauran, the Holy See’s Secretary for Relations with States, at a time that we were both due to be in the USA.
The meeting, which took place at the residence of the Vatican delegation in New York, went on for over an hour, and we discussed all the issues which were still preventing an agreement. I had arrived with several options for each issue, and, ultimately, all the disputes were resolved between us. At that point, the discussion turned to the question of diplomatic relations. In this matter various possibilities had previously been suggested whereby to establish relations gradually. I told Tauran, that after the Oslo Agreement, it would be worth capitalizing on the good atmosphere created around the world to reach full diplomatic relations immediately, since partial relations would lead to the situation where as soon as we wanted to upgrade them, criticism would be raised – both internal and external – against the change, whereas in the present situation, anyone who wanted to criticize us would make do with minor criticism. The Secretary for Relations with States agreed with me.
The note passed between Celli and myself following the secret meeting with Tauran said that a meeting would be held at the Vatican on 29 December, at which the two delegations would approve the agreement, and the following day the agreement would be signed at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem. Once the agreement was completed, it was submitted to the two groups of experts, who willingly accepted the reciprocal compromises without any criticism (or even surprise).
The Pope and the Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See Oded Ben Hur, 2 June 2003, in the Vatican for the presentation of his credentials.

The Pope and the Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See Oded Ben Hur, 2 June 2003, in the Vatican for the presentation of his credentials.

Meanwhile, the subject was generating ever-increasing media coverage. In mid-December, a long interview was published in the supplement of the Ha’aretz newspaper with Yitzhak Minervi, in which the former ambassador, who is considered to be an expert on Church affairs, said that there was no chance whatsoever that under the present circumstances, and prior to a final settlement of the status of Jerusalem, the Holy See would sign an agreement for the creation of diplomatic relations with Israel… Articles were published in the ultra-orthodox press criticizing the desire to reach an agreement with the Vatican, after so many years of hostility, hatred and ill-will, as they claimed.
On December 30, 1993, the Israeli delegation set off for Rome in a special plane we had hired. Celli led us along the corridors of the Vatican, and even though we had all visited there before, on many occasions, this was a totally different visit. For about an hour, we sat with our hosts and agreed on the subsequent steps, following the signing of the agreement: detailed negotiations on major issues which had been agreed in principle but without going into details. We got back on the plane, this time, with the members of the delegation from the Vatican, and within a few hours we reached Israel.
Celli and his colleagues rushed to their rooms in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. When they emerged they were clad in particularly festive garb, as appropriate for such an occasion. Both the Israeli and the world media eagerly awaited the ceremony. On CNN, the event was broadcast live as the main news item. The Mayor of Jerusalem, a plethora of guests, all the people who had accompanied us during that year and given us advice – everyone was really excited.
Those officiating at the ceremony handed to Celli and myself the agreement for signing, as is customary at such events. We were served champagne, and we stood up and shook hands. We were overwhelmed by a wonderful feeling of victory. Both sides to the agreement had got what they hoped. And even though it was a political agreement between two states, we all knew that it was also a historic agreement of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people. Some tears were even shed, among the participants.
(Text gathered by Giovanni Cubeddu)

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