Israel’s Netanyahu and Pope Francis exchange gifts, talk policy

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a 25-minute audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Monday, the first meeting between the two leaders.

Netanyahu presented the pontiff with a Spanish translation of “The Origins of the Inquisition,” a book written by the Israeli leader’s late father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, an acclaimed historian known widely for his research on the topic. “To his Holiness Pope Franciscus, a great shepherd of our common heritage,” Netanyahu inscribed on the inside cover.

Francis thanked Netanyahu and gave him a bronze plaque of St. Paul.

The meeting was not long but covered a wide range of issues, including regional diplomacy, plans for a papal pilgrimage and bilateral issues between Israel and the Holy See.

According to a Vatican statement, attention focused on the complex situation in the Middle East, emphasizing the pontiff’s hope that renewed peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians result in a just and lasting solution as soon as possible.


Diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See were established in 1993. Since 1999, the two sides have been negotiating a long list of outstanding issues, including the status of the Roman Catholic Church in Israel, requested sovereignty over certain sites, and taxation and expropriation of church assets in the country. Last year, Israeli officials involved in talks said resolving these matters would bring a “historic upgrade of relations.”

Officials in the Vatican made a nod to the pope’s plans to visit the Holy Land, but no official announcement was made. According to Israeli media, an advance team from the Vatican is expected in the near future to prepare for Pope Francis’ expected visit in May.

In April, the pope reportedly accepted an invitation for a visit to Israel extended by visiting President Shimon Peres. On Monday, Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife, repeated the invitation. “We’re expecting you, we can’t wait,” Israeli media quoted her as telling the pontiff after the meeting.

Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, visited in 2009.

Netanyahu’s meeting with the pope was part of a two-day state visit to Rome, during which he met with Prime Minister Enrico Letta and other Italian officials and signed a dozen agreements of bilateral cooperation on public security, energy, water and education, Italian media reported.

The Israeli leader also raised the subject of Iran with his Italian hosts. Speaking at a ceremony in Rome’s Great Synagogue on Sunday, Netanyahu urged the international community to keep in place some of the sanctions imposed on Iran over its controversial nuclear program.

The United States and five other major powers last month negotiated an interim agreement that eases some sanctions and puts limits on the Iranian program while a permanent agreement is being reached. Many nations fear that Iran’s effort is aimed at acquiring the ability to build nuclear weapons, despite denials by Tehran.

Israel will not allow Iran to achieve military nuclear capability and an atomic bomb that would threaten “not only Israel but Italy, Europe and the entire world,” Netanyahu said.


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Sobelman is a news assistant in The Times’ Jerusalem bureau.