Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left Israel today in route to Rome for a two-day official visit during which he will meet Pope Francis for the first time. The Prime Minister left midday accompanied by six of his ministers, including his newly appointed Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. During the visit, Netanyahu will also meet with his Italian counterpart Enrico Letta and will hold a joint session with the Italian cabinet.
Netanyahu will be granted his first audience with Pope Francis on Monday. When they meet, they will likely discuss the Iranian nuclear issue and the ongoing peace talks with the Palestinians and are also expected to discuss the Pope’s planned visit to the Holy Land next year. Pope Francis has already been invited to visit the Christian holy sites by Israeli President Shimon Peres and by Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas. Sources say the visit could take place before Peres ends his term as president in July, although no date has been made official.
In 1993, Israel and the Vatican established full diplomatic relations but have been engaged in years of thorny diplomatic negotiations over property rights and tax exemptions for the Catholic Church which have still not been resolved. One of the most delicate questions involves access by Catholic worshippers to a site on Mount Zion in Jerusalem called the Cenacle, where Christians believe Jesus held the Last Supper the night before his crucifixion.
Last June, the sides agreed to step up negotiations over all their outstanding issues.