Olmert's Final Gift to Russia

Olmert and allies hope a gift of prime J'lm real estate, part of the Sergei Compound, will convince Russia not to sell arms to Israel's enemies.

Hana Levi Julian, | updated: 15:16

Part of the Russian Compound
Part of the Russian Compound
Israel News Photo: (file)

Cabinet ministers approved on Sunday the transfer of property rights over the Sergei Compound in Jerusalem, part of the property known as the Russian Compound.


Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will present a part of the compound as a gift to Moscow when he travels to the Russian capital for a state visit on Monday. Olmert will meet with President Dimitry Medvedev in an effort to persuade the Russian leader not to sell arms to Syria and to back sanctions against Iran.


The building, part of which was once used by the former Soviet Republic, is located in the very heart of the capital. It is slated to be turned over to the Russian government but has not yet been formally transferred, pending a ruling on the legality of the decision by the Supreme Court.


The property, which originally belonged to Russia, fell under the guardianship of the Israeli government in 1952. Israel was willing to hand it over to the USSR in 1990, but the political turmoil in the former Soviet Union precluded the move.


Israel acquired some 90 percent of the Russian compound in 1964, paying the former Soviet Union $3.5 million in a purchase dubbed the Orange Deal because Israel, lacking hard currency at the time, paid Moscow in citrus fruit.


The Sergei building, church and courtyard, however, were part of the remaining 10 percent that was not included in the deal and until the 1967 Six Day War served as the local KGB spy nook.


The decision to transfer the property to the Russian government this year was made weeks ago by a committee comprised of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann and Finance Minister Roni Bar-On.


Opposition in Court to the Transfer of Property

The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel has opposed the transfer of the property to the Russian government from the beginning, saying it is not wise to hand over land in the heart of the capital to a nation that is a fickle friend at best. The organization is arguing that the Cabinet is presently limited in what it is legally authorized to do.


"The current government is a transitional government and according to the Supreme Court ruling, its authority as such is limited to actions which are continuous 'maintenance actions' in their nature," read a letter to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz and senior government officials. "It cannot make important and irreversible decisions which future governments will have to deal with."


Jerusalem mayoral candidate Nir Barkat also warned against the move, saying the transfer of Sergei's Courtyard in Jerusalem to Russian ownership would set a dangerous precedent and could encourage other states to begin claiming church property. For example, he noted on Sunday, the Greek Orthodox Church claims ownership over the land on which the Knesset was built. "It's a dangerous precedent, giving property in the heart of Jerusalem to foreign interests,” Barkat warned.


Hoping to Persuade Russia to Abandon Syria, Iran

Olmert is trying to win favor from Russia, which has consistently balked at votes in the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions designed to force the Islamic Republic to comply with mandates to abandon its nuclear development program.


Moscow has helped build Iran's first nuclear reactor at Bushehr, which is slated to become fully functional early next year.


Less than a year ago, the Kremlin also sold the Islamic Republic a very advanced surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile defense system to protect its nuclear facilities, despite concerns that Iran is actively engaged in building a nuclear weapon.  


Russia has also made overtures to Syrian President Bashar Assad, who backed Moscow in its recent invasion of Georgia. Assad reportedly told the Russian newspaper Kommersant in August that he would be willing to consider deploying Russian-made Iskander missile systems in Syria to counter the U.S. missile shield in Europe. He has denied the reports.


The Iskander missile, a more advanced and lethal projectile than a Scud missile or Katyusha rocket, has a range of 280 kilometers and could easily hit most population centers in Israel if fired from Syria's border at the Golan Heights. Russia has also considered selling the Pantsyr-S1 air defense missile system, the BUK-M1 surface-to-air medium-range missile system and other strategic and tactical arms to Syria.