Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greets Pope Francis in Ramallah, West Bank, on May 25, 2014
ROME—The Vatican said it would soon sign its first treaty with the “State of Palestine,” lending legal weight to a recognition it has extended for more than two years and drawing swift criticism from Israel.
The Holy See has had diplomatic relations with the Palestinians since 1994, and has referred to the “State of Palestine” in official documents since the United Nations admitted a Palestinian nonmember observer state in 2012.
The agreement announced Wednesday, which a joint Vatican-Palestinian statement said will be signed in the near future, is the result of talks that began in 2000.
It comes four days before Pope Francis canonizes two Palestinian saints in St. Peter’s Square. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to attend the ceremony.
The treaty’s text wasn’t released, but Msgr. Antoine Camilleri, the Holy See’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians, told the Vatican-run newspaper the accord covers the activities and legal status of the Catholic Church in the Palestinian Territories.
A “very elaborate and detailed” section deals with “religious freedom and freedom of conscience,” Msgr. Camilleri said. Other sections deal with property and tax questions, as well as the scope of Catholic media and charitable activities. Msgr. Camilleri voiced hope other Muslim-majority countries would follow the Palestinian example of recognizing the religious freedom of Christians and other minorities.
He said he also hoped the deal would help, “if only in an indirect way,” to promote the recognition of Palestinian statehood and the realization of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel decried the recognition. “Israel was disappointed to hear of the Holy See’s decision to agree to the final version of the agreement with the Palestinians,” said Israel’s foreign ministry. “This does not promote the peace process and a Palestinian return to the negotiations. Israel will study the agreement and consider its next steps accordingly.”
In Washington, Obama administration officials were reserved in their reaction to the Vatican move, refraining from offering any criticism or expressing disappointment. Instead, State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke reiterated the U.S. position – that Palestinian statehood must result from negotiations with Israel, and not be imposed by outside nations or international institutions.
Israel has been on the defensive diplomatically, as the Palestinians push state recognition in international organizations. Israeli diplomats and experts expect international pressure on the country to rise in response to concerns Prime MinisterBenjamin Netanyahu’s new conservative government won’t promote a two-state solution. His coalition partner Jewish Home calls for the annexation of 60% of the West Bank.
The U.S. generally defends Israel from outside pressure. But that stance has been shifting in recent months. During the height of friction between the U.S. and Israeli governments over Mr. Netanyahu’s March address to the U.S. Congress, the White House signaled a possible change, saying it might not reject U.N. demands for a settlement of differences between the two sides.
Palestinian officials said the pending Vatican agreement was another example of solidifying international support for recognizing that the West Bank, the Gaza Strip andEast Jerusalem constitute a sovereign state under occupation by Israel, territories Israel considers disputed.
“It’s recognition that Palestinians are acting on their commitment to the two-state solution, while Israel is deliberately destroying it,’’ said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organization. “We look at the Vatican recognition as having more than just diplomatic significance. It also has symbolic and moral significance.’’
Recently, France said it plans to sponsor a U.N. Security Council resolution on Palestinian statehood, giving the sides two years to reach a deal or risk unilateral recognition. Aside from the Vatican, Sweden is the only other European government that recognizes a Palestinian state.
Vatican recognition could add to momentum among European governments and parliaments to push for bilateral recognition of a Palestinian state, said Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat who has expressed support for foreign recognition of a Palestinian state as a way of pressuring Israel. “Vatican recognition doesn’t stand alone. It has an impact on other countries that are now discussing it,’’ he said.
On a visit to the region in May 2014, Pope Francis called forcefully for a two-state solution and irked Israeli officials by unexpectedly stopping to pray at a controversial Israeli-built separation wall on the West Bank. He also called on Palestinian authorities to treat members of their Christian minority as full citizens and to guarantee their religious freedom.
Two weeks after his visit, the pope hosted Israeli President Shimon Peres and Mr. Abbas in the Vatican Gardens, where the three prayed for peace in the Holy Land.
The Vatican has had diplomatic relations with Israel since 1994, but the two have yet to sign an agreement on property rights and tax exemptions for the Catholic church in Israel, something the Vatican has with other countries with which it has diplomatic ties. Msgr. Camilleri said a treaty with Israel is “almost ready and I hope that it will be signed soon.”