(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The cabinet on Sunday gave Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a gift to take to the Kremlin when he visits Russia Monday: Transfer of ownership of Sergei's Courtyard in downtown Jerusalem to the Russian government.
The cabinet stipulated, however, that rights to use of the property by the Agriculture Ministry and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) must not be harmed, except by agreement between the two governments.
The decision ends years of negotiations over the matter between Moscow and Jerusalem.
The site was built in 1890 to accommodate Russian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land and was named after Tsar Alexander II's son, Sergei Alexandrovich.
Israel acquired some 90 percent of the Russian Compound in 1964, paying the former Soviet Union $3.5 million. The purchase was dubbed the "Orange Deal" because Israel, lacking hard currency, paid the Russians in citrus fruit.
Sergei's Courtyard, however, was part of the remaining 10% not covered in the deal, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been keen on securing control of the site.
The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel on Sunday petitioned the High Court of Justice against the government's decision, on the grounds that it is a caretaker government that cannot make such a far-reaching move.
"A caretaker government can only carry out the actions necessary for the daily management of the affairs of state," wrote attorney Yitzhak Bam on behalf of the organization. "A government that functions on the strength of inertia, which does not require the confidence of the Knesset, cannot carry out significant and irreversible measures."
Bam wrote that the Legal Forum had already petitioned the High Court on September 15 against a commitment by the Foreign Ministry, made in early 2007, to return the building to Russia.
In that petition, Bam argued that the government had to make such an important decision and not just the Foreign Ministry.
A few days later, the government became a caretaker government when Olmert resigned as prime minister.
Since then, three Supreme Court Justices, including President Dorit Beinisch, Ayala Procaccia and Edmond Levy have declared that the Judges' Election Committee could not elect new judges while a caretaker government was in office. It based its decision on a ruling handed down by Procaccia several years earlier, in which she ruled against appointing members to a local religious council while a caretaker government was in office.
"The handing over of a property in the center of Jerusalem to a foreign government which has imperialistic designs is no less important a decision than electing judges or appointing religious council representatives," wrote Bam.
He called on the court to hold an immediate hearing because Olmert intends to hand over the property to Russia during his visit to Moscow on Monday.
The SPNI, whose Jerusalem office has been in the building for over 30 years, called on the government to safeguard Israel's interests in and access to the area.
"In light of the government's decision today, SPNI hopes that the government of Israel will safeguard the rights of the Israeli public in the Sergei Courtyard, which is one of the most beautiful and important corners in Jerusalem.
"The government must ensure unrestricted access for the public to the area, and guarantee that the social, cultural and environmental activities SPNI has organized in the courtyard for dozens of years will continue," the organization said in a statement.
SPNI Jerusalem spokeswoman Anat Asal said that it wasn't clear that the organization would be allowed to remain there.
"We were told our status would be determined after the transfer and that's a big problem," she said, noting that the group's status should have been determined beforehand.
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