Russia to get disputed J'lem property

Gov't worried Greek Orthodox church will use transfer of land of St. Sergius Church as precedent.

russian compound 224 (photo credit: ksenia svetlova)
russian compound 224
(photo credit: ksenia svetlova)
The government plans to transfer ownership of the land on which the capital's St. Sergius Church stands to Russia in the coming weeks, a Foreign Ministry official said Wednesday. The issue, which has been under negotiation since then-Russian president Vladimir Putin claimed the site in Jerusalem's Russian Compound and others nearby as property of the Russian Orthodox Church four years ago, is extremely delicate as Israel is concerned over the precedent that might be set for other churches' properties in the capital. For example, the Greek Orthodox Church owns the land on which the Knesset and the Prime Minister's Residence are located. The premises of St. Sergius, which are currently used by the Agriculture Ministry and environmental protection organizations, will remain in Israeli possession for the next few years, with the exact period to be determined in ongoing negotiations with the Russians, said Foreign Ministry official Eitan Margalit, who headed a ministerial committee on the issue. Negotiations continue over the handover of a second property that is already listed as Russian-owned and houses the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court, Margalit said. The decision to transfer ownership of the St. Sergius site comes after a Jerusalem court approved transferring ownership of the property from the Custodian General to the government, the last legal move required ahead of the transfer to the Russians, officials said. A few more properties are reportedly being claimed by Russia as well. The government's decision was condemned this week by Jerusalem opposition leader Nir Barkat, as well as by an attorney representing the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, which aims to safeguard a Jewish presence throughout Israel. The forum has vowed to petition the High Court of Justice to stop the move. "I believe that this move represents a dangerous precedent of transferring properties in the heart of Jerusalem and is in violation of the city's interest, since this is not the only property being contested by foreign sources," Jerusalem mayoral candidate Barkat wrote in a letter to Olmert on Tuesday. "It is unclear what the purpose of such a move is, how it advances the national interest and strengthens Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, and what the government of Israel is getting in exchange for such a large and central piece of property in the capital," Barkat wrote. He added that the legal status of an exchange of telegrams between the two governments on the issue was uncertain since the Olmert-Putin agreement was never approved by the Knesset. Attorney Itzhak Bam, representing the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, said Wednesday that the agreement was illegal. "This is not an ordinary real estate deal, but an international agreement, done for diplomatic reasons," Bam wrote in a letter to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on August 5. He added that the "near-secret" agreement had neither been ratified by the government nor presented to the Knesset. "This is not permissible in a democratic society," Bam said. The two church properties were bought by Israel from the Khrushchev government in 1964 for a shipment of citrus fruit, in what became known as the "orange deal." However, the validity of that agreement was later disputed by the Russan government.