Italy Blocks Deal to End Bethlehem Standoff

Italy blocked a deal Tuesday to end the 36-day standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, saying it was never asked and could not give refuge to Palestinians holed up in the Christian shrine until critical details were worked out.

Secretary of State Colin Powell telephoned Premier Silvio Berlusconi twice Tuesday trying to resolve the stalemate and hoped Italy would accept at least some of the men, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington.

But Foreign Ministry officials said central issues had not been resolved, including how long the 13 Palestinians would stay and what the terms — if any — of their confinement would be.

"What are the responsibilities of the hosting state? How must we keep them? In prison? In a convent? Are they free?" said one Foreign Ministry official who asked not to be named.

The Italian position delayed implementation of a deal reached Tuesday afternoon between Israel and the Palestinians to end the siege at the basilica, built over the spot where tradition holds Jesus was born.

Defense Minister Antonio Martino said Italy would consider a request to host the Palestinians — but said none had been received and Italy would not accept any "unilateral" decisions imposed on it.

As the deal unraveled, the No. 2 diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, William Pope, met with the Italian Cabinet undersecretary, Gianni Letta, an Embassy spokesman said.

While details were not released, Italian officials and diplomatic sources said the Italians were incensed they were not consulted — a message implied in a strong Foreign Ministry statement issued Tuesday.

The ministry, which is currently headed by Berlusconi, said it "never received any information from the parties about the process of the negotiations, nor were any requests advanced in the past few days from these parties."

"The issue of the acceptance in Italy of Palestinian citizens has never been posed, and up to the point that we have reached, it cannot be proposed," the statement said.

Diplomats said Berlusconi was pulled in two directions — under U.S. pressure to take the Palestinians on one side and aware on the other that his deputy, Gianfranco Fini, had voiced strong opposition to the deal on Monday.

One diplomat, speaking on condition he not be identified, said Berlusconi had been "put into a corner" and while the Italians might eventually agree once conditions are worked out, "right now they're not ready."

It wasn't clear how the negotiations had gotten as far as they did without Italy being fully consulted.

The Vatican had been actively seeking an end to the standoff, with the pope sending an envoy to the region and making several pleas for the Palestinians and Israelis to end the crisis. Pope John Paul II visited the holy place two years ago.

When asked Tuesday if the Vatican had pressured Italy to take the Palestinians in, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said there had been no "official contacts."

Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, a Vatican Middle East expert who did not take part in the negotiations, acknowledged the Italians had the right to seek details and guarantees, particularly if the men were actually terrorists.

But he said if the United States had asked Italy to take the men in, Italy could not refuse "because we're not talking about giving asylum, but granting hospitality."

A key figure working the back channels between the Vatican and the Italian government appeared to be former Premier Giulio Andreotti, a senator-for-life who has strong links to both the Catholic Church in Italy and the Palestinians.

Andreotti told state radio Tuesday that he had been a middleman in negotiations between a Turin-based missionary facility and the government — starting 10 days ago.

Ernesto Olivero, head of the Young Missionary Service facility said high-ranking religious authorities in Jerusalem had contacted him about taking the Palestinians in. Andreotti identified the initiator of the approach as Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

"We told them we would be available and prepared to receive them," Olivero said in a telephone interview, adding that he immediately called the regional president and Andreotti, asking that they get in touch with government officials.

In Washington, Boucher would not say if the United States wants the Palestinians confined should they go to Italy. "The Italians will have to make their decision."

Several Italian lawmakers — many of them representing parties in the governing coalition —expressed concern about accepting the Palestinians.

"We already have enough delinquent criminals and terrorists on our territory," said Roberto Calderoni, vice president of the Senate. He asked why the United States didn't take the Palestinians to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where it is holding prisoners from the war in Afghanistan.