(photo credit: Courtesy of J'lem Municipality http://tour.jerusal)
Ehud Olmert is off to Moscow today in what may well be his last overseas visit as prime minister. He will arrive at the Kremlin bearing a valuable gift - or more accurately, a concession - one the Russians have been adamantly demanding as their due.
Olmert will turn over to the Russians nine acres, known as Sergei's Courtyard, inside the Russian Compound in the heart of downtown Jerusalem.
The courtyard is named for and dominated by a sumptuous guest house constructed in 1890 for aristocratic pilgrims by grand duke Sergei Alexandrovich, then president of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society (IOPS). Sergei was the son of Tsar Alexander II, brother of the infamous Tsar Alexander III and uncle of the last tsar, Nicholas II.
The entire compound was chartered by the Russians from the Ottomans in 1858 to be used for pilgrim welfare. Then, during World War I, the Turks confiscated the lot.
After the war the British Mandate requisitioned the premises. They came into Israel's possession after independence in 1948.
All the while, White and Red Russian churches vied for the deeds to the courtyard.
In 1964, Israel purchased most of the Russian Compound from the Red Church for $3.5 million worth of oranges. But the Orthodox Palestine Society continued to function in Sergei's Courtyard, which was not included in the "oranges deal." The site became, in effect, a KGB base.
After 1967 it was taken over by Israel, and since then it has housed various government offices, as well as the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
WE CAN understand why Russian leader Vladimir Putin would like control of the site. It would have great symbolism for Russia, as a further manifestation that the Russian empire is resurgent.
What we do not understand is the Israeli government's willingness to accede to Moscow's demands, especially since we have not been told what Israel is getting in return. We do not buy into the premise that Israel should trade territory for improved diplomatic relations.
One reported pretext for this goodwill gesture to Putin is that Olmert would then be better positioned to entreat him not to equip Iran with equilibrium-upsetting S-300 ground-to-air missiles.
But Moscow, which is playing high-stakes superpower poker with Washington, would not in any case set aside its interests for a piece of Jerusalem real estate, no matter how prestigious. Israel's position should simply be that Teheran's regime must not be supplied with such weaponry under any condition. Sergei's Courtyard shouldn't figure in the equation.
Such a handover could, moreover, whet the appetites of other international actors. To cite just three examples, the Greek Orthodox Church owns the land on which the Knesset, Prime Minister's Residence and parts of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem stand. Some of the leases are due to expire, while others will remain in effect until the middle of this century.
Our position is that just as the government may reasonably exercise eminent domain vis-a-vis local residents, it may do so with regard to relics of yesteryear's imperialism.
Russia's claim to being Sergei's legal heir is feeble. His holdings here were explicitly stipulated by the Turks as private, and not state-owned.
If Russia can inherit Sergei's property, couldn't Israel claim the property 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?
THERE IS no reason the Jewish state should regard Sergei's Courtyard as sacrosanct and turn it into what could possibly amount to a de facto extraterritorial Russian toehold in our capital.
And 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.
Those who oppose the gesture are now expected to turn to the High Court of Justice to try and stop it. They will argue, in part, that such a significant concession should not be made by a premier who has already tendered his resignation.
Regardless of Olmert's caretaker status, our view is that the premier has failed to make a compelling case that handing over Sergei's Courtyard is in Israel's interest.
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