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Cardinal, Israel President Meet in Compromise

January 05, 1987|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — New York's Roman Catholic archbishop, Cardinal John J. O'Connor, who became the center of a diplomatic incident last week when the Vatican ordered him to cancel meetings with President Chaim Herzog and other Israeli leaders, conferred for an hour with Herzog on Sunday after a last-minute compromise worthy of a Solomon.

O'Connor was forbidden to meet Israeli officials in their Jerusalem offices lest his doing so might imply acceptance of Israel's claim to sovereignty over this city--a claim the Vatican does not recognize. Israeli officials refused to see O'Connor anywhere else.

Both Home and Office

In the end, the Catholic prelate met Herzog in the presidential mansion, which serves as both Herzog's home and his office. O'Connor chose to emphasize the home part; the Israelis stressed the office part.

That hurdle having been crossed, O'Connor also held talks with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres at his home in Jerusalem this morning.

Both sides were anxious to avoid any suggestion of a deal.

"I don't like to put it in such terms," an Israeli government spokesman said. "There are no deals."

"I did not change my mind about paying an official visit," said O'Connor as he left his meeting with Herzog.

"My understanding is that this is the president's residence. If this is not the president's residence, then there has been a gross mistake."

In Rome, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro stressed in a statement that O'Connor's were courtesy calls rather than political meetings.

Noting that there have been previous meetings between Popes and Israeli heads of state at the Vatican, Navarro said: "The question, as is known, regards the status of the city of Jerusalem, the problem of the occupied territories and the Palestinian problem. I believe that the act of courtesy of Cardinal O'Connor does not involve these problems, which are dealt with in the proper places."

The O'Connor affair began last summer after the prelate made public statements about a need for a Palestinian homeland that angered members of New York City's Jewish community. Last September, Peres, who was then prime minister, invited the prelate to visit Jerusalem for a look at the "other side" of the Middle East question.

As originally announced, O'Connor was to be a guest of the state, and his visit was to include meetings with Herzog, Peres and Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. But then the Vatican stepped in, and O'Connor canceled the official meetings, terming his trip, instead, a private pilgrimage.

Cardinal Apologizes

O'Connor later apologized for any offense to the Israeli nation for what he termed his "mistake" in failing to familiarize himself in a timely way with Vatican rules forbidding such official meetings in Jerusalem.

The turnabout nevertheless caused a furor here, given Jewish sensibilities dating from long before creation of the Israeli state to centuries of religiously motivated persecution by Christians generally and Roman Catholics specifically.

While O'Connor made it clear that he would welcome invitations to visit Israeli leaders outside of their offices, they refused.

A break reportedly came during a dinner Saturday night at the suburban Tel Aviv residence of U.S. Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering. The outline of the compromise emerged from talks at that time between O'Connor and Israeli Cabinet minister Ezer Weizman, who attended in place of Peres.

"I was invited this morning to pay an unofficial, informal visit on the president in his home, which is what I said I'd be willing to do if so invited," O'Connor told reporters after his meeting with Herzog on Sunday.

Informality Stressed

Stressing his view of the meeting as unofficial, O'Connor wore a black suit instead of his official robes to the session and arrived in a black limousine without the usual Vatican flags on the fenders.

A government official commented: "Basically we look at it as a very positive step, because, after all, the cardinal is coming to visit the president of the state of Israel at the presidential mansion, which is the highest symbol of our sovereignty. And he is meeting him there, and as a direct result of that meeting, Peres is going to meet him tomorrow at his residence. . . . So from that point of view, we achieved what we wanted to achieve."

A spokesman for the prime minister said that Shamir will not meet with O'Connor, although he confirmed that Shamir had approved the compromise arrangement for the meetings with Herzog and Peres.

"The problem is not O'Connor," Shamir's spokesman said. "The problem is the Vatican."

Earlier Sunday, the New York archbishop prayed at Jerusalem's Western Wall, the last remnant of the Temple Mount compound destroyed by Roman legions more than 1,900 years ago. The wall is considered Judaism's holiest site.

"It was a very, very deeply moving experience for me," O'Connor said afterwards. "This wall to me is an enormously important symbol of suffering."

O'Connor said that he prayed for "the people of Israel . . . the people of the Middle East . . . for peace with justice" and for forgiveness of his own sins.

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