Arguments behind the scenes have preceded Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked to speak at the reception for the Pope at Ben-Gurion Airport, but the Vatican politely refused.
The Vatican argued only heads of state give speeches at such receptions, and the Pope’s counterpart in Israel, the Vatican said, was President Shimon Peres, not Mr. Netanyahu.
Mr. Netanyahu, Vatican officials said, was the counterpart of the Vatican’s prime minister, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. The Vatican officials also said this was a “religious visit without political aspects.”
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At a certain stage, Vatican officials agreed to permit Mr. Netanyahu to speak, but only at the state reception in the President’s residence.
However, since Mr. Netanyahu has to leave immediately after the state reception at Ben-Gurion Airport for his meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, he will not be attending the reception at the President’s residence in Jerusalem.
A likely compromise would allow Mr. Netanyahu to speak at Ben-Gurion Airport alongside Cardinal Bertone.
The two parties disagreed not only about Mr. Netanyahu’s speech, but also about the meeting between the Pope and the prime minister.
According to protocol, the Pope, owing to his diplomatic status, does not need go to the Prime Minister’s Bureau to meet with the Israeli premier.
Instead, the Israeli premier is supposed to come to see him. When the previous Pope visited Israel in 2000 Ehud Barak, who was prime minister at the time, went to meet with Pope John Paul II at the Mount of Beatitudes in Northern Israel.
Mr. Netanyahu believes the appropriate place to meet the Pope, if not in his office, is at the Prime Minister’s Residence, but the Vatican refused to follow his wishes.
Now, talks are being held in an attempt to change the venue of the meeting away from Nazareth, where it was originally planned, to Capernaum.
A number of problems cropped up with respect to the festive celebration being planned for the Pope by Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat in the Tower of David in the Old City.
According to the plan, Mr. Misezhnikov, who is the cabinet minister responsible for the trip, and Mayor Barkat are supposed to speak at the event and to welcome the members of the Vatican.
But Vatican officials have demanded that Mr. Barkat not be permitted to speak at
the event because the Vatican does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Old City of Jerusalem.
Israel was forthcoming with the Vatican on this issue and removed symbols of the State of Israel and the Jerusalem municipality from the invitations. But Israel staunchly refused the Vatican’s demand that Mayor Barkat not be permitted to speak at the event.
Mr. Misezhnikov informed the Vatican representatives he invitations had already been sent, and they explicitly said Mr. Barkat would speak.
David Bedein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org