World Jewish News
Israel bought this land for $3.5 million in oranges, Russia wants it back
30.12.2019, Israel and the World
Moscow has increased pressure on Israel to give it more of the Russian Compound in Jerusalem ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Israel next month.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed willingness to sell the Elizabeth Courtyard, where an Israel Police detention center now stands, former Russian prime minister Sergei Stepashin said last week.
Stepashin is the current chairman of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society (IOPS), which built the Russian Compound, where the courtyard stands, in Jerusalem in the 19th century.
Putin “is very interested in this issue. Even more so, he is a believer, a [Russian] Orthodox and visits the Holy Land with pleasure,” Stepashin said, adding that Russia is working on getting the lands back.
The remarks by the Russian official, thought to be close with Putin, come at a tense time in Israel-Russia relations: The deconfliction system in Syria is going less smoothly than it has in previous years; Israeli-American Naama Yissachar was sentenced in a Moscow court to 7.5 years in prison for allegedly having less than 10 grams of cannabis in her luggage and Netanyahu asking Putin to pardon her; and several incidents of dozens of Israelis being detained in Russian airports.
Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who sometimes serves as Netanyahu’s translator in meetings with Putin, would not comment on Stepashin’s specific comments, but said that there have been inquiries by the Russian government in the past, and there have not been any breakthroughs.
In 2008, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert agreed to give Russia Sergei’s Courtyard, another part of the Russian Compound that abuts the Elizabeth Courtyard, but Moscow seeks more of the surrounding area.
The entire Russian Compound was constructed by the IOPS between 1860 and 1864 for Russian pilgrims to Jerusalem, but the Ottoman Empire confiscated it during World War I. It subsequently became part of the British Mandate, and then belonged to Israel after independence in 1948.
Israel bought the lot for $3.5 million worth of Jaffa oranges in 1964, but the IOPS continued operations on the lot, serving as a front for KGB agents. It was fully taken over by Israel after 1967, when the Soviet Union cut diplomatic ties with Israel.
Stepashin said in an interview with Russian news site Izvestia that he “witnessed a conversation,” prior to 2013 in which Netanyahu said: “I am not opposed to withdrawing from the prison, but due to the fact that this is Israel’s property… you will compensate us financially, and then we will take the prison out of there and give the building to you… You have many rich Jews” in Russia.
Stepashin echoed longstanding Russian arguments that USSR leader Nikita Khrushchev’s sale of the land to Israel was not legitimate, saying that, “thanks to Khrushchev, a week before his resignation, he transferred all of this almost for free to the Israeli state.”
By LAHAV HARKOV