"Put not your trust in princes," the Psalmist advises. Friendly Israeli civil servants have given similar advice to Catholics dealing with today’s Israeli politicians. Given the recent history of relations between the church and the Israeli government, it is a counsel born of hard experience. For, though no crisis has been declared, relations have been deteriorating badly. Recently the Israeli government told the nation’s Supreme Court that it is not bound by a 1993 treaty with the Holy See. That declaration is an affront not only to the Catholic world but to all who take international agreements seriously.
The Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel was intended to establish a legal framework to govern relations between the Catholic Church and the Israeli state, which until then were regulated by a mishmash of rules dating to the Ottoman Empire. The agreement led to the Vatican’s recognition of the State of Israel. Critics of the agreement warned that the Holy See had played its only card (diplomatic recognition) in return for a promissory note. More than 11 years later, it appears that is exactly what happened. Israel has not kept its promises.
In a response to a petition before the court, the government asserted that the accord, though duly ratified by the cabinet, is not binding on entities of the Israeli state. Sadly, the government stand on the treaty is not new. As early as 1997, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, who had signed the treaty for the Holy See, complained of Israeli officials’ evasive pleas of ignorance of the treaty in attempts to resist implementing its provisions. It is obvious that if State officials...do not know of the existence of the treaty or have not been helped to grasp its spirit, he said, the agreement will never be more than a piece of paper, a kind of dead letter.
Archbishop Celli’s remarks caused a stir, but the Israeli noncompliance continued. Only in 1999 did the government publish the treaty text in the official register, a move that was supposed to make the agreement obligatory on state agencies but once more failed to have the desired effect. A Vatican source close to the negotiations told America, There has been much talk of an historic achievement,’ of a new kind of relationship, and so on, but no real consequence, no actual implementation, which there must be if the entire historic’ exercise is not to be a sham.
A key provision of the Fundamental Agreement required further negotiations on legal and fiscal matters, but in the meantime it upheld the historic rights and exemptions of church institutions until a new agreement could be put in place. The immediate occasion for the government’s disavowal of the treaty was a church petition to halt attempts to enforce taxes in violation of those provisions. At the same time, the government either suspended or failed to engage in the mandated negotiations.
The situation of two Catholic hospitals illustrates the deteriorating legal and political situation in which Catholic institutions now labor in Israel. Both are works of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition. Saint Louis Hospital in West Jerusalem is dedicated to the care of the terminally ill. Teddy Kollek, when he was mayor of Jerusalem, turned to Saint Louis to care for the city’s H.I.V./AIDS patients. Saint Joseph’s Hospital, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, has served a largely Arab Israeli and Palestinian population and trained nurses for community service. In defiance of the Fundamental Agreement, the Jerusalem Municipality has threatened to take action against Saint Louis for nonpayment of taxes, and the Ministry of Finance has demanded tax payment from Saint Joseph, threatening the closure of both hospitals.
In parallel moves, in 1999 the government abrogated an agreement with four humanitarian organizations, including Catholic Relief Services, and it has taken action to enforce taxes on the Mennonite Central Committee and the Lutheran World Federation. The Lutherans run Augusta Victoria Hospital on Mount Scopus, a major health care facility, also in Arab East Jerusalem.
Treaties must be honored (pacta sunt servanda) is among the most elementary principles of international law. What, then, we ask, does Israel’s appalling pattern of noncompliance reveal about its attitude to the Christian presence in Israel? If the Fundamental Agreement is not recognized as binding, what is the government’s true policy toward the Catholic Church? If Israel cannot be relied upon to honor the Fundamental Agreement, which of its promises, if any, can be trusted?
The two sides resume negotiation on Feb. 15. Israel could demonstrate its good faith by announcing in open session plans to implement the decade-old treaty.