Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) – To the dismay of many Israelis, the cabinet on Sunday voted to approve the transfer of nine acres of prime property in downtown Jerusalem to Russia.
The building and garden, known as Sergei’s Courtyard, were purchased by Russian royalty in the 1800s and have passed through a number of sovereign hands through the years.
For more than a decade, Moscow has been demanding that the property be handed over to the Kremlin.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in Russia this week, has told Russian officials of the Israeli government's decision to turn the land over to Russia, a spokesman said/
But many Israelis are unhappy that Olmert will get nothing in return for the “gift” that he’s giving to the Russian government.
There is a public outcry demanding to know why this step was taken, said Jerusalem City Councilman Nir Barakat.
“I can clearly say that it’s against the interest of the City of Jerusalem. It’s weakening Jerusalem,” Barakat told journalists in Jerusalem on Monday. “It [sets] a precedent for future demands of other people for land in the center of the city, and I think it’s a bad deal.”
Israel considers Jerusalem to be its undivided, eternal capital.
The Russians secured the compound from the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1858 to be used for pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. It was confiscated by the Turks during World War I, requisitioned by the British after the war, and passed on to Israel following its War of Independence in 1948.
In 1964, Israel purchased 90 percent of the land from the Russian Orthodox Church. But Sergei’s Courtyard, named for the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the son of the tsar, was not included.
When diplomatic relations between Israel and Russia were restored in the early 1990s, negotiations began on the property.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to transfer the land as a way of improving relations between Israel and Russia and restoring a climate of cooperation and cultural affinity between the nations.
“It was a gesture meant to create goodwill” and not a deal for which Israel would receive something tangible in return, Palmor told CNSNews.com.
Some Israelis are trying to stop the deal from going through. The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel appealed to the High Court this week to stop the transfer of the property, said the Forum’s attorney Itzhak Bam.
The legal group argues that Olmert, as the prime minister of a caretaker government, has no authority to make such a big decision. Olmert resigned as prime minister last month, but has not yet stepped down.
The court is expected to discuss the appeal on Sunday, said Bam.
It’s not clear that the property really does belong to Russia, Bam added. Russia should have taken its claim to court and not to political leaders, he said. But beyond that, Bam said, Israel has no business giving Russia such a gift.
“Russia plays an extremely negative role in the Middle East and Israel. It sends weapons to Iran and Syria. The weapons [reach] the hands of Hezbollah [and are used against Israel]. Russia is not friendly to Israel. Russia strongly supports all the forces that [want to] destroy Israel,” Bam charged.
It is an act of “supreme stupidity” to give Russia the property as a gift. Russia will take Sergei’s Courtyard and continue to sell weapons to Iran and Syria. It is clear that if Russia wants to reassert itself as a superpower in the Middle East, it will continue to sell weapons, he said.
“[Getting the properties back] is seen by Russia as an important step in resuming its past greatness, back to its imperial role in the Middle East,” said Bam, who immigrated to Israel as a child from the former Soviet Union. “Israel doesn’t have to help them to make this step.”
Land in the Holy City
Jerusalem is unique in the world. During its history, all the churches tried to consolidate their hold on the Holy City by buying land. So did the Russian Orthodox Church, said Israel Kimhi, from the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.
There was a kind of a competition between the European powers to acquire land, he said.
A lot of land is owned by various churches here, with the Greek Orthodox Church being the biggest owner, Kimhe told CNSNews.com. The Italians, Germans, Russians and Armenians are among those who also owned land here.
Around the Old City of Jerusalem alone, churches own thousands of acres in bits and pieces. They also own lands in Jaffa, Ramle, Nazareth, and near the West Bank city of Hebron but most of the properties are in Jerusalem, Kimhe said.
The Greek Orthodox Church owns properties, which it has allowed Israel to use under to long-term lease agreements. Those properties include land on which the Knesset, the prime minister’s residence and a Jerusalem neighborhood are built.
The Israeli Ministry of Labor and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel are currently based at Sergei’s Courtyard.
Putin was so interested in this little corner of Jerusalem that he visited the compound when he was in Israel in 2005. “It’s troubling that an international power is looking at such a small courtyard,” said Kimhe.
In an editorial in the Jerusalem Post on Monday, the editors wrote that the Israeli government should be able to exercise the right of eminent domain over the “relics of yesteryear’s imperialism” as it does over its own local residents.
If Russia can claim to be Sergei’s heir, even though his holdings were explicitly designated as private, then can’t Israel claim the property that “the self-same Sergei forcibly took from 30,000 Muscovite Jews whom he cruelly expelled from the city mere months after his Jerusalem guest house went up?” the paper asked.
There is no reason for Israel to turn Sergei’s Courtyard into a possible “de facto extraterritorial Russian toehold in our capital,” it said.
“Capitulation to Moscow in this matter, apart from being unlikely to purchase Russian goodwill on the critical Iranian issue, could well open up a Pandora’s Box of other territorial demands,” the Post said.