MK Bitan promises legislation to resolve Church land property crisis

In recent years, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem sold more than 50 hectares to private investors and developers.

David Bitan in Knesset on February 5, 2018. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
David Bitan in Knesset on February 5, 2018.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Likud MK David Bitan has said that he will establish a working group of MKs from across the political spectrum to aid citizens who bought long-term leases on apartments and houses built on Church land, which has now been sold to a third party.
In recent years, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem sold more than 50 hectares (approximately 124 acres) of land in central Jerusalem – containing more than 1,000 housing units in numerous buildings – to private investors and developers.
The land had been leased to Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) between 1950 and 1952 for a period of 99 years, and then subleased by KKL-JNF for housing purposes.
The developers to whom the Church sold its lease over the land have sought to charge the current owners of the lease up to 22% of the value of their properties to renew the lease, a rate that would amount to hundreds of thousands of shekels for each owner.
Legislation on this issue was attempted before, which would have nationalized these Church lands, but it was halted due to heavy pressure from the Church and senior US politicians who saw it as an assault on the Church’s assets and financial independence.
The Campaign for Saving Leaseholders in Israel, together with Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahum, held a conference this week to discuss the issue, attended by some 500 Jerusalem residents who have been affected by the sale of the land.
Bitan was also in attendance and promised to act on the issue. The MK said that he would seek to create a cross-party working group to prepare legislation, saying the problem “cannot be ignored.”
According to Hassan-Nahum, the kind of legislation now being considered would include a provision for giving leaseholders the first rights to renew the leasehold or to buy the freehold, a regulation that does not currently exist.
The law would also be retroactively applicable so as to assist those people whose property sits on land that has already been sold by the Greek Patriarchate.
A further stipulation of legislation could be to impose a sliding scale for the renewal of the lease, whereby the earlier the lease was bought, the cheaper the renewal would be.
Many who bought these leases paid almost full price for the properties, since they bought it in some cases decades ago when it was still worth market prices.
As the end of the 99-year lease agreement has approached, the property price has declined, and so those who bought later in this period paid less.
Much of the property sold by the Greek Patriarchate is in the prestigious Rehavia and Talbiyeh neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and many of the apartment owners are Anglos.
“A solution needs to be found for the several thousands of Jerusalem residents living under a cloud of uncertainty as to what will happen to their homes,” said Hassan-Nahum. “With the support of MK Bitan, who has committed to helping with this issue, we will pass legislation protecting leaseholders’ rights in Israel, and find an equitable solution to the current injustice. Unlike the previous legislation that failed, we will pass legislation that is not perceived to be anti-Church and that does not hinder purchasers’ rights.”