On 20 May 2020, Religion News Service (RNS) published a piece headlined ”Vatican Reiterates Two-State Solution as Israeli-Palestinian Relations Escalate.” The story included a Vatican statement that read, “The Holy See reiterates that respect for international law and the relevant United Nations resolutions is an indispensable element for the two peoples to live side by side in two states, within the borders internationally recognized before 1967.”
Recent conflicts in Israel and Palestine led to rocket attacks by Hamas on Israeli cities and massive bombings in Gaza by the Israeli armed forces, killing about 250 people. That, together with a new government in Israel — whose new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has expressed opposition to any independent Palestinian state — once again raises questions about a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. Questions also arise about the Holy See’s stance toward possible solutions.
The stance of the Holy See toward the State of Israel and to Zionism, the organization behind the creation of the Jewish state, is long, complex and evolving. It has been influenced by a variety of factors outside the Holy See — such as wars, treaties and, most especially, the Holocaust. Internal factors — namely, the Second Vatican Council, whose “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate)”, also effected a 180-degree change in Catholicism’s official attitude and relations to the Jews.
One of the earliest responses to Zionism appeared in an article in Civiltà Cattolica, a semi-official publication of the Holy See, in 1897, right before the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. Among other things, it stated that “from a theological point of view, there was no divine promise that the Jews would return to the Land of Palestine but only that, before the end of time, they would be converted.”
The end of World War II, the discovery of the Nazi Vernichtunglager, “extermination camps,” which revealed the incredible horror of the Holocaust, and the creation of the United Nations provided the setting for Jews to advocate for the national homeland promised them in Britain’s Balfour Declaration (2 November 1917). In a process far too complicated to treat here, on 19 November 1947, the U.N. General Assembly approved UN A/RES/181 (II), calling for the partitioning of Palestine into a Jewish state, an Arab state and an internationally guaranteed independent enclave (corpus separatum) that would include Jerusalem, Bethlehem and some surrounding villages. For the most part, Jews were satisfied with the resolution while Arabs unanimously rejected it.
The British Mandate for Palestine was due to end at midnight 14 May 1948. Although the U.N. resolution called for the establishment of the boundaries, rights and obligations of the two states to be determined by negotiations, on the evening of 14 May, the Jewish People’s Council declared “the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, to be known as the State of Israel.” The next day, the first Arab-Israeli War began.
Although I have seen it stated that “the Vatican supported the 1947 General Assembly Resolution 181,” I find it odd on several counts. For one thing, the Holy See became a Permanent Observer State at the U.N. only in 1964 and had nothing to do with the formulation of Res. 181 (II). More importantly, Pope Pius XII published three encyclicals (“Auspicia Quaedam,” 1 May 1948; “In Multiplicibus Curis“, 24 October 1948; and “Redemptoris Nostri Cruciatus,” 15 April 1949) never mentioning Res. 181 (II), the unilateral declaration of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948 and the ensuing Israeli-Arab War, which provided the context for the three encyclicals.
In fact, these three encyclicals highlight the primary concerns of the Holy See over the unfolding events. While each encyclical deplores the violence and suffering and calls for a just peace, it is notable that neither Palestinians nor Jews are mentioned by name. The U.N. resolution isn’t mentioned, either.
However, “holy places” and “memorials” are mentioned five times in “In Multiplicibus Curis” and four times in “Redemptoris Nostri Cruciatus.” Although no specifics are given, “the destruction of sacred buildings and charitable places” is mentioned in the former encyclical and a more cryptic and controversial claim of “these places being profaned by sinful and worldly entertainments” in the latter.
As regards the holy places, the Holy See strongly agreed with the provision of Res. 181 (II) for an internationally controlled enclave, the corpus separatum, that would include Jerusalem and Bethlehem — the sites of many sacred places — as well as surrounding villages. While this was the position of the Holy See, Richard P. Stevens in the Journal of Palestine Studies writes: “In April 1974, the Melchite Patriarch of Antioch … was quoted as reporting that the pope had in fact dropped demands for the internationalization of Jerusalem. … There was no Vatican denial that official policy had not been modified on the issue.” The present position of the Holy See is to assure a guarantee for full and free access to the holy places of Christianity, Judaism and Islam for all.
In addition, and in response to the openness of Vatican II to dialogue and its deep respect for the Jews, the commitment of every pope since John XXIII to improving relations with the Jews has involved, at the very least, being sensitive to the importance of the State of Israel to Jewish people around the world. The Holy See became involved in much broader dialogue and negotiations with the situation in Israel-Palestine than merely concern for the “holy places.” The issue of holy places and access to them remains, of course, a priority for the Holy See but it is one of several priorities.
The Holy See has had diplomatic relations with the State of Israel since 1993 and with Palestine since 2013, thereby backing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As recently as 20 May 2020, the Holy See has reiterated its backing of a two-state solution. In addition, the Holy See in recent decades has placed increasing importance on peace and human rights, both of which impact its position on a just and sustainable peace in the Middle East.