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Posted Thursday May 15, 2003

  Response to Ambassador Neville Lamdan Interview on April 30, 2003

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Three turbulent years of diplomacy
The Word From Rome
By Fr. David-Maria Jaeger, OFM

1. About a decade ago, in the heady days of crafting the first treaty to normalize the legal relationship between the Catholic Church and the State of Israel, our delegations agreed that there were things that each side might feel it needed to say to its own constituency, or even to the wider public, that the other side would not be happy about, but that it would be best if we refrained from debating, or publicly challenging, such statements, and avoided an ultimately useless tit-for-tat. It was a wise rule, and I myself have always sought to abide by it. However, since the former Israeli ambassador at the Holy See, Mr. J.N. Lamdan, has chosen to abuse the platform given him by the National Catholic Reporter, not only to wildly mischaracterize my religious community, but -- boorishly and unprecedentedly -- to attack me personally, I myself have no choice but to respond. Indeed, in over a quarter century of dealing, on behalf of Christian and ecclesiastical bodies, with Israeli diplomats, I have never encountered such conduct. In my experience, Israel's diplomats are a body of very highly qualified women and men, whose commendable patriotic zeal in the vigorous representation of their (and my) country's government is more than fully matched by their unfailing courtesy, impeccable manners, and often great personal charm. Even at times of gravest tension, as at the time of the attempted "anti-missionary legislation" of the late seventies, when they had every reason to be extremely annoyed with my determined (and ultimately fairly successful) very public campaigning against that scandalous initiative of a tiny religious party (unthinkingly embraced, for a while, by the governing majority), and when I was still a vulnerable young layman, even the hardest-line Israeli diplomats, and other officials, never ever allowed the difference of opinion to become personal, never. Mr. Lamdan has now perpetrated an exception to that hitherto exception-less experience. Perhaps because he himself is not, as it were, a product of Israel's own excellent diplomatic service, but was previously in the diplomatic service of another country. Still, his having been originally a British diplomat hardly lessens one's sense of wonderment at his singularly "undiplomatic" choice of attacking me, of all people, in print. Since he says -- regarding specifically my role in the Bethlehem drama of last year -- that I was "thoroughly unhelpful" -- let me return the compliment by applying exactly the same words to him. There, I have said it. So now what?

2. Mr. Lamdan's astonishing conviction that I "led an ultimately failed attempt before Israel's high court to force the Israeli army" to end its extreme measures against the Franciscan friars at the Shrine of the Nativity, serves only to show him up as spectacularly ill-informed. As a matter of fact, I had nothing to do with it, and anyone with any familiarity with my consistent policy recommendations in such matters should have known this. But this is neither here nor there. It is astonishing, though, that Mr. Lamdan, an Israeli ambassador, should imply that it is somehow improper to trust Israel's Supreme Court, or that recourse to that Court is somehow a hostile act. I distinctly recall that Mr. Lamdan already expressed himself in this sense at the time, and that, when confronted with the absurdity of that position, he reportedly retracted it. As it happens, the recourse to Israel's Supreme Court did not, in effect, fail. The Justices were horrified to learn that the military were preventing the evacuation from the Holy Place of the rotting corpses of Palestinian men shot by army snipers, whereupon the military quickly changed their position. Likewise the Justices extracted from the military a promise, on the record, to stop preventing food supplies from reaching the Franciscans. Only then, and on that basis, did the Court -- following the Anglo-American judicial policy of deference to the executive in security and foreign policy matters -- decline to rule formally against the Executive.

3. For the record, the dramatic situation at the Shrine of the Nativity in Bethlehem was created when sloppy military planning (heedless of the warnings of some of the military's own officers) led to the Israeli military incursion into Bethlehem being carried out in such a way as to practically herd the Palestinian armed men into Manger Square, without first inserting a force to isolate and protect the Church of the Nativity (something that was done on all subsequent occasions), so that, faced in the end with imminent capture or death, the armed men (a medley of soldiers, policemen, clansmen and members of unofficial, clandestine, armed organizations), decided, on 2 April 2002, to break down the locks and occupy the Shrine by force of arms. The Army arrived soon after and laid siege to the entire compound, demanding the men's surrender. In a painfully obvious attempt to lay the conceptual and public-relations groundwork for an armed assault on the compound, in spite of ministerial promises not to do this, the Army declared that the resident Franciscan community were "hostages" (thus preparing to characterize the eventual bloody battle at the Shrine, not as an operation to arrest the armed Palestinians, but as "hostage rescue"). It was untrue, and, as the official spokesman of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, I took great pains to let the whole world know it, to the abiding irritation -- apparently -- of Mr. Lamdan. At the same time, without adverting to the contradiction, the military were putting enormous pressure on the Franciscans to abandon the Holy Place, so as to leave an unobstructed field of fire. Mr. Lamdan's -- and the other hardliners' -- anger at the Franciscans stems precisely from our consistent refusal to abandon our post, which made it impossible for the military to carry out an assault without risking unacceptable "collateral damage." Thus began the 39 days of armed occupation of the Basilica from within, and armed siege from without, with the Army cutting off the supply of food, power and water to the besieged, armed Palestinians and unarmed, peaceful, Franciscans alike, in the vain hope that either the Palestinian armed men, or the unarmed Franciscans, would give up. Eventually, precisely in the course of the hearing at Israel's Supreme Court, the Army formally reversed its stand, and claimed that it was not condemning the Franciscans to starvation, because, if the religious chose to do so, they could leave the compound and feed elsewhere. So much for being "hostages!" As a matter of fact, the Franciscans were never either "hostages" or "trapped." It was a matter of indifference to the armed Palestinians whether the religious stayed or left, and when we needed to evacuate several individual friars, who were in need of urgent medical attention, our only concern was to make sure that this was all-right with the besieging military (and, of course, it was).

4. No more than a modicum of intelligence would have been necessary to understand that, for a number of very good reasons, under no conditions, could the Franciscan Friars abandon their post, leave the Holy Place, and expose it to the risk of a bloody battle in the Birthplace of the Child Jesus, with attendant carnage. Our orders from the highest authorities of the Order and of the Catholic Church were explicit and very firm, and the quiet heroism of the Friars and Sisters actually at the Shrine was unyielding. An impasse had been created, and could have been resolved at once, if the contending parties had heeded our calls, which I reiterated daily, or even several times a day, in my statements, for an exercise of true statesmanship, for a show of magnanimity, generosity, farsightedness. Concretely, the proposal that I took up and constantly re-proposed, on behalf of my community, was for the "wanted" armed men to be allowed safe-passage to the Palestinian-controlled territory in the Gaza Strip. This would have been, I argued, a practical and honorable compromise, in which each party gave up something of importance to it, but neither party risked an essential interest. The Palestinian armed men would have given up returning to their homes and families in the Bethlehem area, but would have avoided capture and its probable consequences. The Army would have given up arresting and interrogating the men, but would have seen them removed from the theatre of operations and effectively confined to the small, totally walled-in Palestinian area in the Gaza Strip. This was the concrete proposal that was available at the time, and that, as the official spokesman of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, I daily reiterated, rather than somebody else's hare-brained scheme about mingling with Palestinian worshippers and so on that the interviewer saw fit to resurrect. In the end, under orders from the White House, our proposal was, in effect, the one accepted by Prime Minister Sharon (and President Arafat), though with the added twist of the Israeli government's insistence that 13 of the men should enjoy more comfortable circumstances in Europe, rather than be consigned, with the others to the hardships of the overcrowded Gaza Strip.... How different everything could have been if, instead of a grudging acceptance, at the insistence of the world's one remaining superpower, after a harrowing 39 days of unremitting public relations disaster, the Government Mr. Lamdan represents had shown itself to be as magnanimous, as generous, and as farsighted as my brethren and I had suggested it might be, both in its power, and in its interest, to be, right at the beginning, when it had become clear that the situation was incapable of any other acceptable kind of resolution.

5. Back to the interview: Mr. Lamdan's mysterious hints at some hitherto undisclosed, and unsuspected, "dramatic initiative," allegedly agreed by "the Vatican" and the Israeli government, for Cardinal Etchegaray "to get innocents inside the church out of harm's way," only to be blocked by the Palestinians, does not correspond to anything known to me, or -- I imagine -- to anyone else. The one certainly known fact is that, when Cardinal Etchegaray did go to the Holy Land, on behalf of the Holy Father, the hardliners within the military absolutely declined to let him reach the besieged Shrine (until he came again when it was all over anyway, bar the prayers of thanksgiving). I repeat, there was a publicly known, and daily reiterated, proposed solution, an honorable compromise, that was rejected, until it was, in the end, imposed on the parties by the United States.

6. Mr. Lamdan's belittling reference to "a cacophony of voices on the Catholic side, many singing different tunes, chief of them the Franciscans ...." could not be more wrong. There was no daylight at all between what he calls "the Vatican," the "headquarters of the Franciscan Order in Rome," and the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land -- the only authoritative, significant, relevant Catholic "voices" in this matter, hierarchically ordered, absolutely "in synch" with each other, as I can testify from personal knowledge and direct experience. Mr. Lamdan's further attempt to "identify five different factions" among the Franciscans themselves is as ludicrous as it is gratuitously insulting. Especially objectionable is his suggestion of ethnic rifts among the brethren ("the Arabs and non Arabs"). In a region riven by ethnic, national, religious conflict, our fraternity stands as an example of Christ being our peace, of a union in faith that concretely transcends all contingent, this-worldly differences that otherwise divide people. Within our Franciscan brotherhood of the Holy Land, are Arabs and Jews, Americans and Iraqis, without these inherited this-worldly distinctions ever being in any way an obstacle to brotherhood. I personally consider this our most important witness to the truth and power of the Gospel. And I speak from the most intimate personal experience, as a Jew by nationality myself (and happy to be one), an Israeli by citizenship, living in the love of Christ our Saviour with my Arab and Palestinian brethren, in the awareness that our oneness in faith, and in religious consecration, dwarfs all other considerations. To attack precisely this most precious reality of our brotherhood is therefore the most offensive to me, and to my brethren too.

7. If I chose to reply in kind, which I should deprecate, I might speak of the "different factions" I was able to identify within the Israeli establishment on this matter, with Mr. Lamdan's being the most extreme. Colleagues of his, in the international policy part of the government, were at first quite receptive to the proposed honorable compromise that I advocated, and their only objection was that the Palestinian side had not yet accepted it, to which I replied that it could only be to Israel's advantage to be the first to show magnanimity and farsightedness, by accepting it first, and letting the onus fall on the other side. We spoke more in this vein, until the civilians I was speaking to were overruled by a hard-line military "faction," and interrupted the dialogue. In the end, it was Prime Minister Sharon who overruled the military hardliners, abruptly removed their authority to deal with the matter, and transferred it to more pragmatic players, his son Omri and the General Security Service. So much for factions. The military too did not appear to speak with one voice. In the midst of the crisis, one of the highest authorities in the defense establishment (with whom I shared mutual friends from academe) took the trouble to hold a conversation with me, which was very candid, mutually very respectful, in which I was satisfied that I was being given truthful assurances as to what the military would and would not do, and that my concerns were sincerely understood and taken into account.

8. On the broader, and ultimately far more important matter, of the relationship in general, Mr. Lamdan does not cease to astonish. It is entirely false that the competent authorities of the Catholic Church hold that "the bilateral relations" with the State of Israel "had to be put on hold" against the background of the current phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or that the relationship has therefore been "robbed of content." The contrary is the case. The relationship between the Catholic Church and the State of Israel has very specific, very concrete, "content," namely the aptly and deliberately named Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel, signed on 30 December 1993, and which entered into force on 10 March 1994. We, the delegation of the Catholic Church on the Permanent Bilateral Commission charged with applying the agreement, have been trying very hard to engage the government in joining us in the effort to speed up, and enlarge, the application of the "content" of the relationship, through the more thorough implementation of the Fundamental Agreement. This is something Mr. Lamdan knows perfectly well, just as he knows that, most recently, it was the government that, alleging the impeding general election, suspended the talks between late November 2002 and early April 2003. So how could he possibly stand things on their head in this manner? Mr. Lamdan should also know perfectly well what his, and his Government's Catholic interlocutors mean when calling for 2003 to see a "turning point" in the relationship, since they have been told, at every level, that, with the approach of the tenth anniversary of the Fundamental Agreement, the Catholic Church is looking to the Government of Israel to allow for the speeding up of the current round of negotiations on the so-called "economic agreement," which, required by the Fundamental Agreement, should settle a number of serious outstanding property and fiscal issues between the Church and the State. This round has been going on since 11 March 1999. Concluding this essential agreement in time for the tenth anniversary, the Government is being told at all levels, will be the most fitting way to commemorate the tenth anniversary, and validate the promise of normalizing Church-State relations in Israel. With all my heart I hope that this comes about. This will also free the Bilateral Commission to pursue the other matters on the agenda, including, for example, an agreement on the matter of entry and residence permits for clergy and religious, and an agreement on access for pastoral ministers to persons in special situations, such as Christian soldiers, prisoners, and hospital patients (or, rather, access for those members of the faithful, to pastoral care). By the way, part of the agenda for the current round of talks is the matter of the Cenacle, the Shrine of the Last Supper and the Descent of the Holy Spirit, which the Ottomans forcibly confiscated in the sixteenth century, and which is now in the hands of the successor State of Israel. We, the Franciscans especially (the rightful owners since 1342), very much hope for a gesture of generosity, good-will, friendship, on the part of Israel, returning the Shrine to us, so that it can once more be a place of regular Catholic worship. There had been well founded hope that the Government was going to do it in time for the Holy Father's Year 2000 pilgrimage, but it could still be done, and truly constitute the "turning point," on which Mr. Lamdan seems to concentrate such attention. It would be a magnificent gesture, universally appreciated, and (as we have explained in the negotiations) easy to achieve, legally and physically, as it were.

9. I very much regret that Mr. Lamdan's intemperate remarks against my person and my religious community have compelled me to respond. I have dedicated most of my adult life to the service of the historic enterprise of normalizing relations between the Catholic Church and the State of Israel, and have invariably found Israel's diplomats the most enthusiastic and dependable allies in this common enterprise. I cannot explain why Mr. Lamdan should have chosen the path he has pursued in the interview with NCR (or why NCR should have chosen to host him in this manner, without an opportunity for rebuttal in the same article, but that is a different matter, and in no way lessens my respect for this influential paper or its justly highly regarded Rome correspondent, a true friend to our fraternity, I know). I can promise though that it will not deter me, or my brethren, from our commitment to do all within our power, and then some, to further the task of normalizing, and developing, the relationship between the Church, society, the nation and the State, in Israel, as elsewhere. As for myself, I also forgive Mr. Lamdan for the personal attack. I know he felt under pressure, and probably was not thinking things through properly. I wish him a happier and more fulfilling retirement, or next posting, whichever it is.

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