Cardinal William H. Keeler, speaking to a national Jewish public policy group, defended yesterday the Vatican's accord with the Palestinian leadership, which has angered Israelis over its statement that unilateral decisions on the status of Jerusalem would be "morally and legally unacceptable."
The agreement, which Vatican officials signed two weeks ago with the Palestinian Authority, was seen by Israelis as interference in the Middle East peace process. The status of Jerusalem is one of the toughest issues facing the Israelis and Palestinians.
Israel, which captured East Jerusalem and the Old City from Jordan in 1967, claims Jerusalem as its undivided capital. The reference to rejecting unilateral claims to Jerusalem appears in the accord's prologue and does not name a party, but it was widely interpreted as being aimed at Israel.
Keeler, the Catholic archbishop of Baltimore, is widely admired in the Jewish community and has been a leader in relations between the two faiths. Even so, he faced a potentially chilly reception from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which is a broad coalition of Jewish community councils and national agencies representing viewpoints from the traditional Orthodox to the liberal Reform branches of the faith.
But Keeler did not shy from the subject, devoting more than the first half of his speech to the accord. The statement rejecting unilateral action on Jerusalem was a restatement of a long-standing Vatican policy, Keeler said.
"The Holy See has repeatedly said that these issues are to be resolved by the parties to the negotiations. These parties are the Israelis and the Palestinians," he said. "Now it is in fact to protect the principle that sovereignty can only be resolved by the parties who live there that the document restated the Holy See's traditional rejection of any unilateral claim to the city by any one party."
Keeler said Israelis should applaud the document for what it forced the Palestinians to concede.
"The Holy See has succeeded in getting the PLO to reject its own unilateral claim to the city by means of this agreement," he said.
In addition, he said, the Palestinian Authority agreed "under international law [to] the application of the principles of full religious liberty and freedom of conscience to its own society, the first Arab country to do so. This represents an extraordinary breakthrough for democracy in the Middle East."
Rabbi A. James Rudin, inter-religious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee and a longtime collaborator with Keeler in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue, disagreed.
"I think the preamble, by specifically mentioning Jerusalem, brings the Vatican, at least to this observer, into a prejudgment situation, which I don't think it should have made," he said.
"I think the timing was wrong," he said. "I think it makes for bad politics. I think it's created some obstacles and some tensions."
The accord between the Vatican and the Palestinian leadership was drawn up as Pope John Paul II plans to visit the Holy City late next month. His visit has stirred controversy in Israel. Posters in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem called the pope "the evil one" yesterday and threatened that his pilgrimage to the Holy Land in March would not pass peacefully.
They assailed what they called the desecration of the Jewish Sabbath, which they said the Pope's plan to celebrate Mass on March 25, a Saturday, would cause. Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath.
Reuters contributed to this article.