Daily Israel Report

Legal Forum Battles Transfer of Russian Compound to Moscow

The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel is fighting a move by Kadima ministers to transfer ownership of Jerusalem's Russian Compound back to Moscow.
By Hana Levi Julian
First Publish: 9/8/2008, 7:30 PM

Israel News Photo: (file)

The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel is hoping it will have enough time to file its petition in Supreme Court before Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni signs away Israel's right to the 'Sergei Compound,' warned the group's program coordinator, Einat Korman, on Monday.

 

The Forum charged that a troika of ministers has been working to complete the deal with the Russian Federation, representing Moscow, before the Israeli public realizes they've given away the property, also known as Jerusalem's Russian Compound.

 

Korman said her group had hoped that a meeting last week with the Knesset State Control Committee would put the brakes on Livni, Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On, Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

 

Committee chairman Michael Eitan (Likud) had called state officials and Livni, said Korman, "to stop any progress in this negotiation until this issue is dealt with in the Knesset and Supreme Court." She said the Legal Forum plans to file its petition within the next week to block the government's transfer of property rights to the Russian Federation.

 

However, she said, the effort may have come too late.

 

Decision Made Long Ago

"What we know now is that they didn't really stop, and we are afraid they will conclude this arrangement in the next week or two," said Korman. "What [the committee chairman] says is just a recommendation and the government doesn't have to follow it. The government does what it pleases," she added.

 

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Chayat confirmed that the negotiations have indeed been concluded, and that all that remains is for Minister Livni's signature to grace the dotted line.  However, he told Israel National News, Livni is not yet ready to sign, because "she is waiting for the committee's recommendation [to be published], even though the Knesset has no legal standing in that decision."

 

Chayat admitted that the three ministers, along with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, had indeed approved the transfer of ownership some time ago. He also acknowledged that the move was made unilaterally, without a Cabinet vote, adding that none was needed.

 

"Actually, the finance minister is in charge of government properties and he can decide to give up an Israeli government property without having the government and the Knesset authorize it.  It is part of his powers. That decision can be made solely by the finance minister," he explained.

 

Any appeal by the Legal Forum, he said, would be irrelevant. "They have no grounds," Chayat said. "If there is an appeal to the Supreme Court, the foreign minister will wait for the Supreme Court to decide, obviously. But we know that the court cannot decide otherwise in any case, because the finance minister has the authority to make this decision alone."

 

'The Compound Belongs to Russia'

There is apparently no dispute over whether the property belongs to Russia; it does, in the same way "as the Catholic churches in eastern Jerusalem belong to the Vatican, and the American Consulate property belongs to the United States," explained Chayat.

 

The property was bought at the end of the 19th century by organizations related to the Russian Orthodox Church, according to a brief published by the Legal Forum, and used for the needs of Russian pilgrims who came to the Holy Land. It was also used for political and intelligence needs.

 

The "Sergei Compound" was owned by Great Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the uncle of the Tzar Nicolai II in his capacity as the chairman of the Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society. (IOPS)

 

After the October Revolution, the Soviet government of the USSR claimed to be the legal heir of the property. However, "white Russian" immigrants established an IOPS abroad, and that branch claimed to be the "real" IOPS, thus creating a dispute. 

 

Since 1952, the Israeli General Guardian has had formal legal guardianship and ownership rights to the property. At the beginning of the 1970's, the buildings were leased to the Israel Nature Protection Society and the Ministry of Agriculture.

 

When diplomatic relations were re-established between Israel and the Soviet Union in the 1980's, the Soviets – and subsequently, the Russians – repeatedly demanded ownership over the property, including the Sergei Compound.

 

In 2005, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised President Vladimir Putin he would resolve the matter in a way that would be favorable to Russia.

 

In 2007, Israel's Foreign Ministry informed the Russian Embassy that Israel had decided to transfer the property rights of the Sergei Compound to the Russian Federation.

 

Allowing Moscow a Foothold in Jerusalem

According to Chayat, the decision to transfer the property to Russia now, despite its recent invasion of Georgia, its construction of a nuclear reactor in Iran and its sale of anti-aircraft surface-to-air ballistic missile systems to Israel's enemies, was not made lightly.

 

"Israel's long-term interests are the only reasons for the decision," he said. "The Foreign Ministry sees this as the best decision within the long-term relationship with Israel and Moscow."

 

Legal Forum attorney Yitzchak Bam sees it differently. "Another stupidity of the government; there's no other way to describe it," he said bluntly.

 

But both Chayat and Bam agree that if and when the transfer takes place, any security access to the property that Israel might have, will come at a very high price.

 

"According to international law, there is a legal right to go into any embassy," acknowledged Chayat. "It's not done, but you can, of course, arrest a diplomat if he does something wrong. However, any government should take into consideration that the sovereign nation whose diplomat it arrests, or whose embassy it enters without permission, may also do the same in its own country."

 

Bam concurs. "Officially, they will be able to enter.  Unofficially, they might not. In fact, they don't do that, even though legally they can. Every such move will have diplomatic consequences with Russia.  De facto, they will be pretty immune there."

 

Whether the current tenants of the building will be able to remain there and what rights they might have, is another matter.

 

According to Israel's letter of consent to transfer the property rights, there is a stipulation that the occupational status of all the tenants will be left for future negotiation. "But since the negotiations will be about their eviction," said Bam pointedly, "the only question is not if, but rather, when."

 

Korman added that the move would bolster Russian imperial aspirations in the Middle East, something the group believes is "undesirable from the point of view of US interests as well."

 

Both she and Bam underscored the group's belief that the move "will not improve relations with Russia" and added that it is unlikely that the Russian position on issues such as Iran or military trade with Syria will change over a transaction for the Sergei Compound.