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Israel Sells Land to Moscow While Helping Georgian Refugees

Moscow municipality will construct health spa on Israeli State land in Ein Bokek on the Dead Sea, raising legal and diplomatic questions.
By Ze'ev Ben-Yechiel
First Publish: 8/31/2008, 5:20 PM


“We bought land in Israel on which to build a hotel to serve the people of Moscow, around the mud that heals dermatological diseases,” said the mayor of Russia’s capital.
The Moscow Municipality has announced the purchase of 10 acres of land in Ein Bokek, on the shore of the Dead Sea. Moscow explains the land, purchased from the State of Israel, will be used for a $100-million resort complex. Meanwhile, Jewish refugees from Georgia continue to pour out of Gori in the South Ossetia province, reeling from Russia’s onslaught of their city and assisted by the Israeli government.

“We bought land in Israel on which to build a hotel to serve the people of Moscow, around the mud that heals dermatological diseases,” said the mayor of Russia’s capital, Yury Luzhkov.

On Wednesday the funding for the project was made official by the Moscow Municipality, which specified an item for the resort project in its announcement of the 2009-2011 budget. The municipality plans to construct the resort in those years, to become one of many such health spas owned and operated by the Municipality, mostly in the Black Sea region.

The project began to take shape when Dov Lightbinuf, chairman of the local council for the area surrounding Ein Bokek, met with Moscow city officials near the Dead Sea and heard them voice their desire to build the resort complex. This meeting was followed by another in Moscow between Lightbinuf and Mayor Luzhkov, during which both parties signed an agreement to promote the plan.

It remains unclear what Israeli government bodies, if any, approved the sale of the land.

The Israel Land Authority, responding to the planned sale, issued a statement saying that “the nation’s land may not be given away to strangers unless the matter is specially approved by the director-general.” It is unclear whether this approval ever materialized from the director-general.

Many questions remain about the sale of the land and the building of the resort. The questions include who, if anyone will pay taxes for the sale of the land, annual "arnona" or property taxes, taxes on the costs incurred in the construction and operation of the resort, as well as taxes paid by goods or services purchased by the Russian customers using the resort. Who will receive these taxes is another issue that has not been clarified.

Another unresolved issue relevant to this case is whether the resort will be subject to the kosher dietary laws that govern dining establishments and food vendors in Israel, as the property may have the legal status of Russian land.

The timing of the sale may present diplomatic problems as well. Israel has recently assisted the evacuation of approximately 200 Georgian Jews, who have fled their homes as a result of the massive Russian offensive on Georgia, and the Jewish Agency has been donating a $1,000 grant to each refugee of the onslaught. Israel’s assistance to and recognition of the refugee status of these Jews, along with statements from an Israeli defense contractor that Israel has given military assistance to Georgia, may hamper final government approval of the sale.

Russia has also recently discussed the sale of arms to Syria, including Mig-31 fighter jets and brand-new Askander missiles, which, with their 280km range, can flatten large buildings and military targets almost anywhere in Israel.

Meanwhile, the Israel Land Authority reports that it has recently received a number of inquiries from various Russian sources regarding the purchase of Israeli land.

In a recently publicized case, the Israeli government admitted to plans of handing over a part of the Russian Compound in Jerusalem to the Russian government. The land was originally sold to the Russian Tsar for a quantity of locally-produced oranges, and with the resumption of diplomatic ties following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia is demanding the return of the land, situated in the heart of Jerusalem and adjacent to Jerusalem Police headquarters that it claims is rightfully theirs.