Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Rome on Sunday, December 1st for meetings with Pope Francis I and Italian government officials. Accompanied by six members of Israel’s Knesset, including Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Netanyahu met with the current pope on Monday for the first time since his ascension to his post in March. The two talked for 25 minutes in closed door sessions.
Upon his arrival in Rome on Sunday, Netanyahu attended a Hanukkah menorah lighting ceremony at the Great Synagogue of Rome where he reiterated his staunch opposition to the Iran nuke agreement signed in Geneva. Speaking to those gathered and the foreign press, Netanyahu stated his firmly held beliefs. "I would like to dispel any illusions. Iran aspires to attain an atomic bomb. It would thus threaten not only Israel but also Italy, Europe and the entire world," he declared.
Netanyahu made these remarks despite President Obama’s alleged request that he tone down his bold statements about Iran’s nuclear program, according to a report on INN.
Netanyahu added that the Iranian regime "supports terrorism, facilitates the massacre of civilians in Syria and unceasingly arms its proxies" such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Israel National News also reported that Israeli TV revealed on Sunday that senior US officials have attacked the Israeli Prime Minister's opposition to the Iran deal, calling him "desperate and weak."
Perhaps in response to the growing pressure placed on him, Netanyahu in Rome said "it is very easy to receive a pat on the shoulder from the international community, to bow one's head," but that he was unwilling to do so.
During his meeting with the Pope, Netanyahu presented him with a Spanish translation of the 1995 book written by his father Bentzion Netanyahu, entitled, "The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain," which featured a dedication to, “To his Holiness Pope Franciscus, a great shepherd of our common heritage.” He also gifted him with a Hanukkah menorah.
Pope Francis expressed his thanks and then proceeded to present Netanyahu with a small bronze plaque of St. Paul.
An internationally acclaimed Israeli historian, Benzion Netanyahu passed away in 2012 at the age of 102. A Zionist-Revisionist party member who opposed partitioning Palestine between Arabs and Jews, Netanyahu’s father was best known in academic circles for his research into the Catholic Church’s medieval inquisition against the Jews of Spain, according to published reports.
The Vatican Press Office issued a statement saying that the discussion between the Pope and Netanyahu dealt with the “complex political and social situation in the Middle East, with particular reference to the reinstatement of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, expressing hope that a just and lasting solution respecting the rights of both parties may be reached as soon as possible.”
Sources say that the Pope recently announced his plans to visit Jordan in 2014 and might also include Israel in his travel itinerary. Unnamed sources say that CNN reported last week that the pope was scheduled to make his first visit to Israel in May. The Vatican has not confirmed that report.
Ynet News reported that Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister’s wife extended a personal invitation to the Pontiff to visit Israel subsequent to the meeting he had with her husband. “We’re expecting you, we can’t wait,” she was reported to have said. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said that the Pope had yet to set a specific date to visit Israel.
Also on Monday, Netanyahu met with Italian Premier Enrico Letta and warned that Iran represented a threat to Europe and the entire world if it acquires nuclear weapons.
In an oblique response to the alarming rise of blatant anti-Semitism throughout Europe, the Italian Prime Minister took the opportunity to announce that his government had allotted funding for the establishment of a Holocaust museum in Ferrara and issued an official invitation to Netanyahu to join them at the museum’s inauguration.
Although Monday’s meeting marked the very first time Netanyahu had met with the Holy See, the Pope had already conducted meetings with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in October. In April of this year, the Pope had met with Israeli President Shimon Peres. In 2009, Netanyahu met with the previous pope, Benedict XVI and in 1997 he met with the now deceased Pope John Paul II. During their respective meetings with the Pope, both Peres and Abbas invited the pontiff to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Francis has said he would like to visit the Middle East.
In October of this year, Netanyahu’s office had issued a statement announcing a meeting with the Pope at the Vatican to discuss issues pertaining to nuclear talks with Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, however it was then reported that the announcement was premature. There were no confirmed plans for a meeting with the Pope at the time of the announcement as meetings with the Pope require advanced planning.
Around that time, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) met Pope Francis in the Vatican, and invited him to Israel and to the Knesset, according to a Times of Israel report. Francis replied emphatically, “I’ll come! I’ll come!”
Murray Watson, a Christian-Jewish relations expert said that among the issues that the Prime Minister and the Pope discussed on Monday was the recent European legislation banning circumcision and kosher slaughter.
Pope Francis’s visit would coincide with the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s visit to Jerusalem in 1964, which took place before the Vatican recognized the State of Israel, according to the Times of Israel.
The future trip would mark Francis’s second visit to the Holy Land. He arrived here in 1973, just as the Yom Kippur War broke out. As The Times of Israel revealed in April, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (as he was then) spent six days confined to his Jerusalem hotel, studying the Letters of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.