World Jewish News
Did Israel transfer property to Russia in exchange for Issachar?
22.01.2020, Israel and the World
Israel has taken steps to transfer property in Jerusalem to Russia, likely a gesture aimed at helping to secure the release of Naama Issachar from Russian prison. News of the development was revealed Wednesday in Maariv, which obtained a document showing that Israel has agreed to relinquish rights over Alexander's Courtyard in the Old City already three weeks ago.
The document would effectively end a complicated and historical conflict around sites located near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church. The Jerusalem Post first reported on Russia's interest in securing the property last month but it was not yet clear if steps had been taken to move the request forward.
The land on which the courtyard was built (which includes St. Alexander Nevsky Church and a number of other buildings, all of which are collectively known as the Alexander's Courtyard), was purchased in 1859 by Alexander III of Russia. Originally, the complex was designated for the Russian consulate building in Jerusalem. Later, however, it was decided to make the site the site of the Prussian Church, which was built in the yard in the late 19th century and remains there today.
The conflict around the ownership of Alexander's Courtyard began after the Communist Revolution in Russia in 1917. Since then, two organizations with almost identical names have claimed ownership of the complex. The first is the historic Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, which actually manages the complex. That organization is headed by Nikolai Goffman-Vorontsov, a German citizen with Jewish roots, who was appointed chairman of the organization in 2004.
The competing organization is the Imperial Russian Orthodox-Palestinian Society, which is considered close to the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It has been headed by Sergei Stepashin since 2007. He is a former Russian president, but his tenure lasted only a few months in 1999, at which time he was replaced by Putin. The two individuals have a friendly relationship.
Stepashin held several important positions until he became the head of a company dealing with Russian property management in Israel.
The ownership dispute between the two societies has lasted more than a decade. Stepashin has called Goffman-Vorontsov an “imposter” and demanded the transfer of ownership of the historic complex to his organization.
In 2015, then-Russian premier Dmitry Medvedev even issued a formal appeal to the State of Israel, seeking to put an end to uncertainty and regulate ownership of Alexander's Courtyard. According to Stepashin, the appeal was forwarded to the Israeli Ministry of Justice, who preferred to postpone making a decision on the matter.
Recently, in light of reports that Moscow and Jerusalem are working on a deal around Issachar, who was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison after a small amount of marijuana was found in her bag, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov has raised the dispute over the yard.
One of Bogdanov’s important roles is overseeing Russian property in Israel.
About a week ago, he met with Israeli politician Gila Gamliel and, according to her associates, they discussed Issachar’s release for humanitarian reasons. Bogdanov arrived in Israel earlier this week, two days before Putin, who will take part in Thursday’s ceremony around the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Bogdanov met again with Gamliel.
At the end of their meeting, the Russian diplomat said, “Out of national responsibility and the request of the president, I will not elaborate on the content of the meeting.”
Maariv spoke with a representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry and, according to him, after a long period of rejection, Medvedev's 2015 request was finally accepted.
On December 30, 2019, Israel made a formal decision to transfer ownership of Alexander's Courtyard to the Kremlin-affiliated society and, in fact, even sent Russia documentation confirming this.
Goffman-Vorontsov said in response that he was surprisingly unaware of any Israeli decision about the courtyard. In recent days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Putin, raising the issue of pardoning Issachar. He reported to the press after those meetings that “there is room for optimism.”
Maariv reached out to the Russian Embassy in Israel for a comment but a representative said that they “prefer not to address the issue in the Israeli media.”
By ANNA BARSKY/MAARIV
Translated by Maayan Hoffman.