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Netanyahu meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican, discusses Iran, peace talks

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally had an audience with new Pope Francis on Monday morning, Dec. 2, 2013 at the Vatican while Netanyahu is on an official trip to Italy. At the 25-minute meeting Netanyahu and the Pope exchanged gifts, they are spoke of the Pope's upcoming trip to Israel in spring 2014, and Jewish, Israel and Catholic relations. They also discussed important policy issues relating to Israel including the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and Iran's nuclear weapons program and the recent Geneva interim accords meant to curb the program. Prime Minister Netanyahu also spoke at the Great Synagogue the evening before and afterwards met with the Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta in Rome, Italy.

When Netanyahu was on his way to his last official trip to Italy at the end of October, the Prime Minister's office issued a release that on that visit, Netanyahu would be meeting with Pope Francis. That was not the case, there was a mix up on the Israeli government's side, and the visit had not been arranged and an audience with the Pope has to be arranged in advance. The mishap was embarrassing, but just a month later Netanyahu had the opportunity meet the new Pope.

At the Vatican meeting were there was an interpreter, Netanyahu and Pope Francis spoke about, the "Israeli-Palestinian peace process," "Iran's nuclear program," "the Syrian civil war," "Christians in Israel," and the Pope's upcoming trip to Israel. Netanyahu and the Pope also discussed some of the issues facing European Jewry, rising anti-Semitism including recent legislation passed "banning circumcision" and "kosher slaughter" of meat.

There was also a formal exchange of gifts; Netanyahu gave Pope Francis a Spanish translation of his father's Benzion Netanyahu's book "The Origins of the Inquisition" published in 1995 and a Hanukkah menorah. Netanyahu had a message inscribed in the book that read; "To his Holiness Pope Franciscus, a great shepherd of our common heritage," While the Pope gave Netanyahu "a small bronze plaque of St. Paul." The Israeli Prime Minister's wife, Sara Netanyahu was also at the meeting, the press heard her tell the Holy See as they left that "We're expecting you, we can't wait."

After the meeting the Vatican released an official statement about the visit in both Italian and English, delineating what was officially discussed. The statement began by introducing the meeting, and also mentioning that Netanyahu met with two other Vatican officials; "Today, in the Vatican Apostolic Palace, the Holy Father Francis received in audience His Excellency Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of the State of Israel, who subsequently went on to meet with Secretary of State Archbishop Pietro Parolin, accompanied by the Under-Secretary for Relations with States, Msgr. Antoine Camilleri."

Continuing the statement listed the topics discussed during the meeting; "During the colloquial discussions, attention was focused on 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.

Concluding, the statement described the Pope's planned trip to Israel; "Aside from indicating the Holy Father's plans for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, various questions were considered regarding the relations between the State Authorities and the local Catholic communities, as well as between the State of Israel and the Holy See, in the hope that the Agreement which has been in preparation for some time may be concluded forthwith."

Pope Francis is supposedly set to make his first visit to Israel as pope on May 25-26, 2014 according to an Israeli official; the date however has not yet been confirmed by the Vatican. Netanyahu was the last Israeli leader to meet with the Pope; Israeli President Shimon Peres met the Pope at the end of April, just a month after he was elected and Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein met Pope Francis the both in October, both invited the Holy See to Israel. Also in October, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met Pope Francis, and also invited him to visit the Palestinian territories.

Netanyahu left from Israel to Italy on Sunday, Dec. 1, his trip's itinerary including speaking at the Great Synagogue in honor of the fifth light of Hanukkah, meeting Pope Francis and then Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta in Rome. The trip is part of Netanyahu's campaign against the dangers of Iran's nuclear program and the recently signed Geneva interim accord, which Netanyahu does believe goes far enough to end the program and he has called a "historic mistake."

At his meeting with the Italian Prime Minister Letta, on Monday, Dec. 2 the two leaders discussed the interim Iran nuclear weapons deal. Also Letta announced the building of a Holocaust museum in Ferrara, formally inviting Netanyahu to the museum's future "inauguration."

On the fifth night of Hanukkah on Sunday evening, Dec. 1 Netanyahu spoke at the Rome's Great Synagogue, comparing the threat of Iran to the Hanukkah story. The Prime Minister recounted; "Iran aspires to attain an atomic bomb. It would thus threaten not only Israel but also Italy, Europe and the entire world. I tell you and promise in the spirit of the Maccabees, we will not allow Iran to receive a military nuclear capability."

Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.

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