A history lesson on the Vatican’s support of a two-state solution in the Holy Land

2 mins read
The Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim is seen June 18, 2019, in the occupied West Bank. The Vatican reiterated its call for a two-state solution in the Holy Land after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States would no longer recognize the illegality of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. (CNS photo/Ronen Zvulun, Reuters)

Msgr. Owen F. CampionIt all began in 1948. Exhausted by the Second World War and tired of maintaining their worldwide empire, the British left Palestine, which they had governed, and the United Nations had to decide what was to come.

The U.N. divided the territory between Jews and Arabs, most of whom were Muslims, but many were Christians, including Catholics.

Jews in the region accepted the U.N. decision and immediately formed the independent, sovereign nation of Israel. The United States, and most other important nations, recognized the legitimacy of Israel.

Arabs in Palestine rejected the arrangement, denounced the new nation of Israel as illegitimate and declared that the U.N. decision had robbed Arabs of their ancestral land. The conflict began, and wars have been fought. Truces have come, but never peace.

In several wars, Israel militarily seized land that had been allotted by the U.N. to Arabs, and, with exceptions, Israel has held the land. This further has inflamed the situation.

Pope St. John Paul II formally recognized Israel as legal, but he, as had his predecessors and later his successors, also have insisted that the Arabs have the right, for many reasons, to their own territory and to a government that they choose.

The United Nations, and all the world’s major powers, with varying degrees of fervor, have agreed.

Recently, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a policy that was met with some disagreement in many governments, and, of interest to American Catholics, in the Vatican. This is the policy, new for an American government.

The Arab territories taken by Israel by force over the years have had Arab majorities in their populations. Understandably, the Arabs in these areas deeply resent Israeli occupation. It constantly has been a tense, and even violent, situation.

To dilute the Arab majorities, repeated Israeli governments have built settlements for Israeli Jews in these occupied Arab regions. Again and again, the Arabs protested, and many observers, including a series of Catholic popes, have rejected the settlements as inflammatory, increasing hatred and frustration, if not worse.

For decades, the United States formally opposed these settlements. The Pompeo statement in November said that this long-standing American position is now reversed. This country approves of the settlements.

The Holy See immediately took exception. Why? Past events have shown that legitimating the settlements will aggravate hostilities even more. Most of all, Palestinian Arabs have just as many rights as have Israeli Jews, so Arabs deserve to live in their own lands, governing themselves in peace and security.

Some months ago, the Vatican and the United States also parted ways when the U.S. transferred its embassy from Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city and its financial heart, to Jerusalem. So what? This decision in and of itself recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moreover as an Israeli city. Jews see Jerusalem as important because it was the city of King David, and the ancient Jewish temple was there, but Palestinian Arabs regard Jerusalem, at least partly, as belonging also to them. For millennia, most of the people in Jerusalem were Arabs. As for religious symbolism, Jerusalem is a unique Christian shrine and an important Muslim shrine.

Pope Francis implored the American government not to regard Jerusalem exclusively, and rightfully, as an Israeli city and the Israeli capital. In this appeal, he hardly stood alone. America stood alone. Very, very few world powers recognize Jerusalem as Israeli — not the British, the French, the Germans, the Chinese, the Russians nor the Canadians, to name several. They all maintain their embassies in Tel Aviv.

Vatican policy is wise, historic, realistic and principled. Israel has a right to exist. Palestinian Arabs have an equal right. Considering everything, including Jerusalem’s extraordinary religious significance to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike, the Holy See says that Jerusalem should belong to none, but be an international city under a system that respects all interests.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.