ROME - Pope Benedict XVI is considering visiting Israel in the first part of 2007, former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres said Thursday after meeting with the pontiff at the Vatican.
Peres renewed an invitation, first made last year by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and then the Israeli president, for the pope to visit the country. "He indicated that he may do it in the first part of next year," Peres told a news conference.
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls confirmed the invitation had been extended in a statement, but gave no details on the pope's response.
Peres said he did not think outstanding issues between the Vatican and Israel over taxation of church properties would preclude a papal visit. Some analysts have suggested the pope might not make the trip until the issues are worked out.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner also dismissed concern that a Hamas-led government in the Palestinian territories would prevent the pope from visiting the region, saying: "I hope that by then the problem will not remain. Hamas made a government, but I don't see how they can govern."
Pope John Paul II visited the Holy Land in 2000, meeting with Israeli officials as well as Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat during a stop in the Palestinian territories.
Benedict has continued John Paul's outreach to the Jews, visiting a synagogue in Cologne, Germany, during his first trip abroad last year.
Peres delivered the invitation to the pope from acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
"I told him that he will be welcomed I'm sure by all communities in Israel, clearly by the government of Israel, the people of Israel," said Peres. "The visit of the late pope was very successful and very meaningful, and I do believe that his visit can have an impact on the peace process as well."
Navarro-Valls said that Peres' meeting with the pope and the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, covered peace prospects in the region. "In that context, there was unanimity in condemning every form of terrorism under whatever pretext is made to justify it," the statement said.
Israeli-Vatican relations have improved over the years, but the two sides have been at an impasse over a 1993 agreement concerning the tax obligation for Roman Catholic holdings and methods to resolve property disputes. The Vatican is seeking ways to lessen its tax burden as one of the significant land owners in the Holy Land and wants access to Israeli courts to handle any quarrels over ownership.
Israel has strongly resisted giving any special tax exemptions to the Vatican and has offered to create a special panel to oversee property cases involving the Vatican. Israel's stance is also hardened by worries that special tax terms for the Vatican could open the door for other churches and groups, including Arab communities within Israel, to seek similar loopholes.
Peres said that during his meeting with Sodano, the two sides agreed to "raise the level of negotiations and try to conclude it in the shortest possible time." He did not elaborate.