Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three-part Crux interview with British Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, effectively the Vatican’s Foreign Minister. Part one yesterday dealt with the Vatican’s controversial 2018 deal with China over the appointment of bishops, while part three tomorrow concerns Gallagher’s recent mission in Belarus and the fate of exiled Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Minsk.
ROME – Breaking the Vatican’s month-long silence on the recently announced “Abraham Accords,” British Archbishop Paul Gallagher said Tuesday the deals for diplomatic relations sponsored by the Trump administration involving Israel and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Israel and Bahrain, are “very positive” and to be applauded.
At the same time, Gallagher expressed concern about a growing “isolation” of the Palestinians in the Middle East, which some critics argue has been exacerbated by the Abraham Accords, and he reiterated the Vatican’s call to both Israel and Palestine to restart direct negotiations.
Although he said it’s hard to imagine what such an agreement might look like, Gallagher also suggested the Vatican would be willing to reconsider its long-standing insistence on a two-state solution for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict should all parties converge on some other outcome that’s both just and fair.
The “Abraham Accords,” signed Sept. 15 in a White House ceremony, established full relations between Israel and the UAE in exchange for a temporary suspension in plans announced by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to annex parts of the Palestinian West Bank. A similar deal was also signed between Israel and Bahrain.
“I think I can say that obviously when countries establish relations, or overcome their differences, when they reconcile with each other, that’s a very positive thing which the Holy See can only applaud,” Gallagher said.
“In the context of the Middle East and the relationship between Israel and the Emirates, yes, we see that positively,” he said.
Some had taken the fact that there had been no comment from the Vatican since the deal was announced in mid-September as a sign of ambivalence, perhaps even disapproval, but Gallagher rejected that reading.
“We have no reason to critique [the accord] … we applaud it,” he said. “It’s a remarkable thing, and we have to say, many of us were taken by surprise by these announcements.”
“We hope that it will be to the benefit of the populations of these countries and bring stability to the region,” Gallagher said. “With greater stability in the region, we might be able to face up to some of the other really major problems that exist.”
Gallagher added the Vatican hopes the temporary suspension of annexation plans in the West Bank will become permanent.
“One of the things that’s very much to be welcomed, and we hope it will become permanent, is Israel’s present renunciation of the annexation of the occupied territories, or what they call the extension of rule over the occupied territories,” he said. “That’s good, and we hope that’s permanent.”
Gallagher spoke to Crux Oct. 6 in a wide-ranging interview in a meeting room in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
The 66-year-old Gallagher has held his present post since 2014, after serving as the pope’s ambassador in Australia, Guatemala and Burundi, and as the Vatican’s observer to the Council of Europe.
In the wake of the Oct.4 release of Pope Francis’s new encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti, some interpreters had detected an implied critique of the “Abraham Accords” and the absence of Palestinians from the negotiations in paragraph 174, which reads: “Preference should be given to multilateral agreements between states, because, more than bilateral agreements, they guarantee the promotion of a truly universal common good and the protection of weaker states.”
Gallagher rejected that idea, saying “the text was written long before the Abraham Accords were announced, so there’s no actual connection.”
“The Holy Father is reinforcing, repeating, our commitment to promoting multilateralism, our belief that there’s a greater advantage in multilateral agreements that bring regions or groups of countries together either to face particular issues or to stabilize their relationships,” he said. “But obviously in the case of the establishment of diplomatic relations, it is by definition a bilateral activity.”
“There’s not any necessarily negative consequence, per se, in what has gone on,” Gallagher said.
At the same time, Gallagher expressed concern for keeping the Palestinians engaged.
“Our concern a little bit is the isolation of Palestine,” he said. “That’s a real worry at the moment,” noting, among other things, Palestine’s recent decision to withdraw from the chairmanship of the Arab League in protest over the organization’s refusal to condemn the Abraham Accords.
“What everybody has to do is to recommit to building up all the relationships within the region,” he said. “There’s urgent need for direct negotiations [between Israel and Palestine], but that’s a tall order, I admit.”
In response to a Crux question, Gallagher confirmed the Vatican’s longstanding position on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict remains unchanged.
“We still remain committed to the goal of two states, with international guarantees and particularly the status quo for the holy places, and an internationally recognized statute for the holy city of Jerusalem,” he said. “We still believe this is the way forward.”
Yet Gallagher conceded the Vatican has been pushing that solution for decades, but today it seems more elusive than ever, and he said Rome must be open to alternatives should they emerge.
“One of the big problems we’ve got is that a lot of young Palestinians have lost hope in general, but they’ve also lost belief in the two-state solution,” he said. “We have to be looking at it. If somebody comes up with the right conditions, a just settlement, then okay, one will study it. One is not completely closed down.”
But Gallagher also stressed the “enormous obstacles” facing a resolution short of two independent states.
“When you think about one of the Palestinians’ historical demands, which is the return of the refugees, it’s obviously fundamentally unacceptable to the State of Israel,” he said. “It seems very difficult to arrive at that.”
He said the Vatican will keep an open mind, but it doesn’t expect a better choice than a two-state solution to appear soon.
“If there were, miraculously, such an agreement, the rest of us in the international community would have to give it due consideration,” he said. “But that’s for the future.”
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.