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Cardinal's difficulties smoothed in Israel. But trip puts spotlight on rift between Vatican and Israel

By Mary CurtiusSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 1987



Jerusalem

Quiet diplomacy between the Vatican and Israel appeared yesterday to have extracted both parties from an embarrassing face-off that developed during John Cardinal O'Connor's visit here. But Israeli officials said that the larger issues of the Vatican's refusal to extend diplomatic recognition to Israel or to recognize Jerusalem as its capital remain unresolved. The O'Connor visit, officials here said, has served to highlight continuing poor relations between Israel and the Vatican, despite improvements in relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish people.

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Sergio Minerbi, an Israeli expert on Vatican-Israel relations, said he hoped that the outcry from American Jewry over the visit had demonstrated to ``whoever wants to separate the Jews from the State of Israel'' that he would ``have some problems.''

Israel's Foreign Ministry announced yesterday morning that New York's Cardinal O'Connor met with Israel's president for an hour last night, then with the foreign minister this morning before O'Connor ended his controversial five-day visit and flew to Rome.

O'Connor's decision to meet President Chaim Herzog in his official Jerusalem residence appeared to reverse the cardinal's earlier decision against meeting with senior Israelis in their Jerusalem offices. The meeting would appear to end the immediate diplomatic awkwardness that arose after the Vatican downgraded O'Connor's visit from official to personal.

``To meet with the President in his official residence is the highest recognition of Israeli sovereignty,'' said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ehud Gol. O'Connor was to meet Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in his home here today, a visit Mr. Gol described as reciprocal to the one Peres paid to O'Connor in O'Connor's New York home last September. Church officials could not be reached for comment on the change in O'Connor's schedule.

Representatives on each side said earlier in the visit that they were convinced the other side dealt in bad faith.

``Despite 20 years of cordial dialogue between the Vatican and world Jewry, resulting in unprecedented Catholic efforts to uproot long-ingrained anti-Semitism within the church, the two sides are still sharply divided over the issue of Israel,'' wrote the Jerusalem Post's New York correspondent. One Israeli official described the downgrading of the O'Connor visit as ``a slap in the face to us.''

At the same time, unnamed Catholic representatives in Jerusalem were quoted in several Israeli newspapers as saying they felt Israel tried to use O'Connor's visit to ``force the hand of the Catholic Church'' in improving relations with Israel.

O'Connor himself accepted full responsibility for what he said were his mistakes in preparing his visit.

Speaking from the pulpit of the Franciscan Church of St. Savior in Jersalem Jan. 1, the Cardinal said, ``It is imperative that I let you know that because of my haste in preparing my visit here and my newness to my current responsibility, I failed to be sufficiently thorough and to familiarize myself with the protocol.... Because of that error, unfortunately, it is quite understandable that the people of Israel and the leaders who govern them might have construed a deliberate offense on my part.''

O'Connor then went on to apologize ``for any offense that might have been perceived.'' Israeli officials have been careful not to criticize O'Connor personally, who they have repeatedly described as ``a friend of Israel.'' Instead, they have placed the blame on the Vatican.

Dr. Minerbi, a lecturer at Hebrew University and author of ``The Vatican, the Holy Land, and Zionism,'' said some Israelis and diaspora Jews misinterpreted Pope John Paul II's visit last April to a synagogue in Rome as a step toward Vatican recognition of Israel. As a result, he said, ``perhaps expectations were too high,'' of O'Connor's visit here.

Vatican recognition of Israel has long been sought by the Jewish state. The Holy See's official position is that it does not extend full diplomatic recognition to states whose borders are still in question. But in 1947, the Vatican worked actively against the UN partition of Palestine into Jewish and Palestinian states, and since 1948 it has supported the internationalization of Jerusalem, a concept anathema to most Israelis.

At the same time, since the founding of the state, Israeli officials have felt that Vatican acceptance of Israel would add significantly to its position in the international community by adding the stamp of approval from the world's largest Christian church to the Jewish state.