Ministers okay Moscow's property claim

Cabinet votes to transfer ownership of Sergei's Courtyard in Jerusalem to the Russian government.

By MARK WEISS, JPOST.COM STAFF
October 5, 2008 00:47
2 minute read.
Ministers okay Moscow's property claim

sergei 224.88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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The cabinet on Sunday voted to transfer ownership of Sergei's Courtyard in downtown Jerusalem's Russian Compound to the Russian government. The move is the culmination of four years of negotiations, after then-Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is currently his country's prime minister, laid claim to the site on behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church. Sergei's Courtyard currently houses offices of the Agriculture Ministry and the Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, and the Jerusalem branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. On Monday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will begin a two-day trip to Moscow. Israeli officials expect the Russians to raise the question of the transfer of Russian church property in Jerusalem. Olmert had planned to visit Russia last month but the trip was put on hold due to the political uncertainty here. Israeli officials rejected assertions that an outgoing prime minister should not be making such a trip, saying it was approved by both Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Iran's nuclear program and Israeli concerns over the sale of advanced Russian weapons to Syria are expected to top the talks' agenda. The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel had said it would petition the High Court of Justice if the current caretaker government approves the transfer of Sergei's Courtyard. The group cited the decision by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch two weeks ago preventing the appointment of Supreme Court justices until a new government is formed. In a letter sent on Friday to the prime minister, Cabinet Secretary Ovad Yehezkel and Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz, the forum wrote: "A caretaker government is not entitled to take important and irreversible decisions that the incoming government will have to deal with." The transfer of "important property in the center of Jerusalem to a powerful foreign state with interests in this region and imperial designs" was no less important than the appointment of Supreme Court justices, the forum wrote. Some Israeli officials had expressed concern that such a transfer could set a precedent for other property in the capital owned by the Russian, Greek and Roman Catholic churches. The Knesset and the Prime Minister's Office stand on land originally owned by the Greek Orthodox Church. 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.

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