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Jerusalem land transfer raises fears

Israel settles a dispute with Russia by handing over the deed to a plot in the city. Some fear it sets a bad precedent.

October 14, 2008|Batsheva Sobelman and Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writers

JERUSALEM — Nearly 150 years after Russian Czar Alexander II bought a large plot of land in Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert arrived in Moscow last week bearing a gift: the deed.

The move by the outgoing Israeli leader, after decades of dispute on the issue, has caused an uproar here over the timing and, more significantly, the idea of yielding parts of Jerusalem -- a serious red line in this country.

The Jerusalem Post fretted in an editorial that the precedent could "open up a Pandora's box of other territorial demands."

Land is, of course, at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it doesn't end there: A host of other countries and religious orders could make a case similar to Russia's. (For starters, the Greek Orthodox Church technically owns the land on which the Knesset and the prime minister's residence stand.)

The hand-over of the 9-acre compound known as the Sergei Courtyard proceeded without comment from the Palestinian Authority, which appears to accept that its own territorial claims in Jerusalem are a separate matter. In fact, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently granted a plot of land in Bethlehem to Russia to build a secondary school.

Nevertheless, some Israeli politicians said that a dangerous precedent was being set. Conservative lawmaker Aryeh Eldad speculated that the Jordanian government, which controlled East Jerusalem until the 1967 Middle East War, could make a similar claim.

"What's the difference between an absentee Russian and an absentee Arab?" he asked.

The transfer is effective immediately, but there are still a few hurdles on the Israeli side. It's being challenged in court by a group that is arguing that Olmert, who has technically resigned and is caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed, lacks the authority to make such a move.

Olmert's gift to Russia is essentially a continuation of a promise made by his predecessor, Ariel Sharon, to former Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the timing has sparked criticism that Olmert was trying to win geopolitical concessions from Russia.

Israel and Russia have clashed recently over Moscow's desire to sell weapons to Syria and Iran and its opposition to increased international sanctions against Iran.

Russia has said it opposes Iranian nuclear capability and pledges not to sell offensive weapons to either country. But Israelis fear that Russia will provide antiaircraft systems that could neutralize Israel's regional air superiority.

"I am not expecting the Russians to change their policies on account of the Sergei Courtyard," said Michael Eitan, a member of Likud in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

Before leaving for Moscow, Olmert told his Cabinet the visit would deal with issues of "immediate concern to us, including both the supply of weapons to irresponsible elements . . . and the Iranian problem."

Eitan, who chairs the committee that discussed the Russian land issue, said he was suspicious of such a hasty resolution to a decades-old problem. He said he had demanded to know what Israel was getting in return but received only vague reassurances from Foreign Ministry officials of something that cannot be disclosed.

The czar bought the land in 1860, and the hilltop became a complex serving Russian pilgrims to the Holy Land, with a church, a consulate and the Russian religious delegation.

At its heart is the Sergei Courtyard, a hidden urban gem containing exclusive lodgings for wealthy pilgrims, royalty and dignitaries.

Persian carpets and ornate furniture graced the rooms that hosted Rasputin and others in their heyday, and the Baroque-style towers built above the courtyard became its trademark. The surrounding neighborhood is still called Russian Compound, once home to popular bars named Sergei and Glasnost.

Olmert's gift to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev settles a long-standing Russian claim on the property.

After World War I, the area came under the British Mandate, then became part of Israel when the Jewish state was founded in 1948. In 1964, Israel bought most of the neighborhood in exchange for the novel price of about $700,000 in cash and $500,000 worth of oranges. But the Sergei Courtyard remained in dispute, with both the Red and White factions of the Russian Orthodox Church laying a claim to it.

For a while, the Soviet government maintained offices there that many believe included the local KGB station, until Israel and the Soviet Union severed diplomatic relations in the late 1960s.

Today, one wing of the former guest lodgings houses the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Parks and Nature Reserves Authority. The other wing is empty.

In addition to the land issue, Jerusalemites worry about the loss of what has become a beloved urban oasis. The Sergei Courtyard contains beautiful gardens and fishponds; educational and environmental programs are often held there.

"The site is a rare gem and serves as a unique center, a draw for culture and environmental education for the city in the heart of urban downtown," said Anat Assal, spokeswoman for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. "It would be a terrible shame if those gates are locked."

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ashraf.khalil@latimes.com

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