Holy City braces itself for rush of property demands

After years of negotiation the Israeli government has agreed to return property in central Jerusalem, previously owned by the Romanov family, to Russia. The property in question, a 19th-century inn situated in Jerusalem and built for Russian pilgrims, is

Four years after the issue was raised by Russia's then President Vladimir Putin, Israeli politicians have agreed to return the city-centre real estate to the Russian government.

Central to the discussions is Sergiy’s Courtyard (in Russian, Sergievo Podvorie) in the Russian compound in downtown Jerusalem. Built in 1890 to house Russian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, in recent years it’s housed various Israeli ministry offices.

In 1964, in a purchase known as the Orange Deal, Israel took over 90 per cent of the Russian compound. But, because the Jewish state lacked hard currency, it paid the former Soviet Union in citrus fruits. Sergiy’s Courtyard was part of the ten per cent not covered in the deal.

Israeli parliamentarians say the decision made by the cabinet to return the property to Russia is in compliance with law.

“The decision is the decision of the Israeli cabinet and they have the right to decide it. I am the chairman of the Ombudsman Committee in the Knesset and it’s my responsibility to be certain that everything was above aboard. I can assure you that everything was legal and each side had the opportunity to argue their points,” said Micky Eitan, Chairman of Ombudsman Committee of the Israeli Parliament.

Not everyone is enthusiastic though. Some Israeli officials worry that the transfer could set a precedent for other property in Jerusalem that is owned by the Russian, Greek and Roman Catholic churches.

“There are many capitals in the world where other countries own properties. For example in London there are many properties belonging to Saudi sheikhs. The question is how we can guarantee that this property will be used for the right purposes as we’re not sure it was discussed in the agreement. This agreement can also influence other issues such as the Israeli parliament building, which is situated on land that the Greek Orthodox Church is demanding,” pointed out Naomi Tzur, a candidate in the Jerusalem municipal elections.

On Monday Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert arrives in Moscow for talks with his Russian counterpart. Jerusalem property is expected to be high on the agenda of the two-day visit.

The property deal is the latest chapter in the warming of relations between Israel and Russia. In the last months the two countries have agreed to abolish visa requirements for visits of up to three months.

Aside from the issue of Russian property in Jerusalem, top of the agenda is the sale of anti-missile aircraft to Iran.

Israel hangs on to Russia’s Holy Land property