Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP
Sergei Courtyard, Jerusalem

Israel Returns Sergei Courtyard to Russia, Causes Stir

October 15, 2008 12:30 PM
by Josh Katz
The Israeli government’s recent decision to return Sergei Courtyard to Russia has spurred debate and exasperation in a country where land transfer is not taken lightly.

Olmert Gives Disputed Land to Russia

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert transferred the contentious deed of Sergei Courtyard to Russia on his diplomatic trip to the country last week.

Russian Czar Alexander II bought the nine-acre plot in 1860, and the courtyard was named after his brother, Grand Duke Sergei. Grand Duke Sergei was head of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, which tried to increase Russian power in the region by protecting Russian pilgrims. The British took control of the area after World War I, and that jurisdiction shifted to Israel when it gained independence in 1948, The Jerusalem Post reports.

Then in the 1964 “oranges deal,” Israel paid cash and oranges for most of the land, according to the Los Angeles Times. However, the Orthodox Palestine Society remained in the building and “[t]he site became, in effect, a KGB base.” Israel then cut diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union and took full control of the property in 1967. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and some government offices have resided there ever since.

In the early 1990s, Israel said it would hand over the Sergei building to Russia. Then in January 2008, Israel promised to settle the issue within six months, and Russia, in return, said it would not argue over the rights to other entities in Israel, according to Haaretz.

One of the main arguments against the land transfer is that it will open the door for other countries to assert land claims in Israel. And the Los Angeles Times also states that “[l]and is, of course, at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” For example, Israeli lawmaker Aryeh Eldad worried that Jordan could lay claim to East Jerusalem, which the country held prior to the 1967 war. Some observers point out that in the current situation, the Greek Orthodox Church might also claim ownership rights to the land under the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Prime Minister’s residence and the Knesset.

The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel was one of the groups that took action to halt the handover of the land. On Oct. 6, it petitioned Israel’s High Court of Justice to prevent the move, arguing that Olmert’s government did not have such power because it is a “caretaker government” at the moment, according to The Jerusalem Post. However, the High Court urged the Legal Forum to withdraw the petition, claiming that the attorney general’s office provided evidence proving that “the transfer of ownership to Russia is essential to Israel’s diplomatic ties.”

The Olmert government also says it is fulfilling a promise made by the previous Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to Vladimir Putin. Likud lawmaker Michael Eitan, chairman of the committee that handled the issue of Russian land return, “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,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

The Chabad movement and the National Library in Jerusalem contend that the transfer should be more of a tangible quid pro quo with Russia. The Chabad movement said that Israel should not return the land “until the return of the library of their leader, Rabbi Shalom Ber, confiscated during World War I and now housed in the Russian National Library in Moscow,” Haaretz writes. The National Library said, in exchange, Russia should give Israel the Ginzburg Collection, or “one of the world’s largest collections of ancient Jewish manuscripts from Russia.”

Opinion & Analysis: A contentious land transfer

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and government officials say that the handover is a way to improve foreign relations with Russia. Israel is currently attempting to prevent Russia from supplying Middle Eastern countries, such as Iran and Syria, with weapons. Israel is also hoping that Russia will take a harder line against Iranian nuclear enrichment.

The Jerusalem Post voiced its objection to Olmert’s move in an editorial. The Post claims that improving diplomatic relations is not a good reason to hand over the land, because Russia should not be allowed to supply Iran with arms, with or without Sergei Courtyard. Furthermore, such a concession could be a slippery slope, as other nations might lay claim to land. The publication goes on to say, “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?”

Background: Israeli tension with Russia over Syria, Iran

Although the exact reason for the diplomatic maneuver is not clear, it is believed that Olmert wants to prevent Russia from supplying Israel’s neighbors with arms. At the end of August, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was in Moscow discussing joint-cooperation agreements between the two countries. On Aug. 20, Assad mentioned the possibility of housing Russian missiles in his country, raising fears in Israel and abroad about a potential resurgence of the Cold War.

Moscow’s meeting with Syria might have been a response to American and Israeli support for Georgia in its conflict with Russia, or in reaction to the U.S. military shield in Europe. Israel and Georgia also have close military connections, with Israel providing some of the Georgian forces with training.

Russia also has ties to Iran, and Israel fears that Moscow might ship S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran. This could be especially problematic if Israel opted to implement a preemptive air assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities, The Washington Times writes.

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