September 07, 2008

Putin's Unholy Land Grab

Red Square in Jerusalem

Last month, it took two tank divisions and a diversion of Olympian proportions for Vladimir Putin to subdue Georgia’s fledgling democracy and seize two of its territorial regions. This month we may see Russia’s new emperor claiming a prime slice of downtown Jerusalem for the KGB without even firing a shot.

I am referring to a shady transfer to Putin of what is known as the ‘Russian Compound’; a 17-acre site between Jaffa and Haneviim roads, close to the Old City walls. According to a Foreign Ministry letter which has come into my possession, the deal was agreed between the two governments on December 12th 2007. However, the transaction could not be completed until the land was transferred from Israel’s Custodian General to the government itself. According to the same Ministry letter, this final clearance was ratified by a Jerusalem court just days ago, on August 27th 2008. Like so many other concessions on outposts and the security fence, this seems to be yet another surrender concocted between the executive and the judiciary, without any parliamentary involvement or Knesset oversight.

Given Russia’s close ties with Iran and Syria, the prospect of its establishing an enclave in the heart of the Jewish capital is daunting indeed. It conjures up images of Arab terrorists fleeing into the compound and our security services not being able to pursue them without precipitating an international crisis. In many respects it would be tantamount to inviting a Russian spy ship to permanently dock right in the middle of an Israeli naval base.

The Russian Compound isn’t just a superlative real estate deal. Its commanding position made it the perfect staging ground for numerous conquests of Jerusalem from the Assyrians to Titus’s Roman legions. In 1890, half of the site was redeveloped by the Grand Duke, Sergei Alexandrovich, as a palatial guest house for visiting Russian aristocrats.

In 1964 Israel purchased the compound - excluding only some church buildings - from the Russian Orthodox Patriarch for $3.5 million. For lack of hard currency, the price was paid in an equal value of citrus exports. Since the date of this so-called ‘Orange Deal’ the site has been used to accommodate various government offices and the ‘Sergei Building’ is home to the Society for the Protection of Nature.

During his state visit to Israel in 2005, Vladimir Putin paid a private visit to the compound and the magnificent Sergei Building is said to have ‘captured his heart’. He declared his intention to get it back for Russia. Much has changed in the three years since that backslapping state visit. Whilst Putin has not stopped pushing the legal process for the ‘return’ of the site, he has said lots of kind words about his concern for Israel, which he insists is a good friend of the Russian people. Sadly his actions over these past three years have exposed him as an enemy of Israel and, more recently, a threat to the free world.

Not content with supplying Iran’s Ahmadinejad with all he needs to ‘wipe Israel off the map’, Putin is supplying him with advanced Iskander missiles, to make it even more difficult for the Jewish state to neutralise this existential nuclear threat. Closer to hand, Putin has been arming the Syrian dictator with advanced missiles and looks to be creating a base for his nuclear warships in Syrian ports not far north of Haifa.

This doesn’t seem to bother Ehud Olmert who has the same strategy for all our enemies: giving away parts of Eretz Yisrael without asking for anything in return. This is the prime minister who boldly told fraud investigators that American whistleblower Morris Talansky gave him all that cash without expecting anything in return. The police were incredulous. But to anyone who has seen Olmert handing our enemies land, prisoners, rifles, bullets and jeeps for nothing in return – why should this come as a surprise? It’s his tried and trusted business model.

Even as she campaigns for the Kadima leadership, Tzipi Livni as Foreign Minister is directing the final moves in this latest in a long line of betrayals of the Jewish nation. To keep Shas in the coalition she continues to deny what every Israeli knows for a fact: that half of Jerusalem has already been ceded to Abbas; a man Ariel Sharon once dubbed as ‘a chicken without feathers’. In Turkey, Olmert’s lawyers have put all of the Golan Heights on the table in hopes of a handshake and photo-op with the Syrian dictator. And then there is the backdrop discussion of 1967 borders and returning refugees, both of which topics seem lately to have changed from red lines to amber lights.

Moreover, Putin’s interest in our promised land is not just limited to Jerusalem. Russian government websites and news agencies have previously reported that Abbas has transferred three sites in Jericho to the Russian Government and further sites in Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives. Insiders tell me to expect the next move to be in Hebron where other sites are on Russia’s shopping list. Taking his lead from Livni, the PA chairman also gives away land that is not his to give.

Likud MK Yuli Edelstein has told this writer that the Jerusalem giveaway was first mentioned to him casually by a lawyer working in the Knesset. “It was so absurd that I really didn’t take it seriously. So I submitted a sha-ilta (member’s question) and was astonished to receive confirmation of the intended transfer.” The ministry said nothing about what (if anything) was expected from the Russian government in return for the property.

Edlestein, a Ukrainian-born former refusenik, is pressing the Defense and Foreign Relations Committee for a Knesset debate on the subject. He worries about creating precedents: “Next thing we will have the Greeks reclaiming the land on which the Knesset itself and the president’s residence are standing. Where will it all end?”

In justifying the government’s actions, Livni’s ministry argues that the Compound was never Israeli property in the first place and that the Custodian General was, at all times, holding the property in trust for its original Russian owners. But this seems to ignore two important facts. First the $3.5 million paid out by Israel in the sixties, whether in cash or oranges. Second, that the ‘original Russian owners’ are neither Putin nor the Russian government. The prevailing Ottoman law prevented such property being owned by a foreign state. As Sergei Alexandrovich commissioned the project with private funds, the only relevant beneficiary of the Custodian’s trust has to be the Duke’s family.

Grand Duke Sergei was assassinated in 1905 and left no children. It happens that one of the last surviving heirs of his Romanov dynasty is the Queen of England’s husband, Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh. For my part, and as a British subject, I have sent His Royal Highness a personal letter asking him to register a family claim which, I feel confident, can halt this unworthy transaction in its tracks.

I appeal to all readers in Israel and the Diaspora to use whatever communal or political influence they can to expose this story and bring pressure on the government in Jerusalem to tear up this agreement, or – at the very least – to press them to submit the proposals to a full vote in the Knesset. Our nation is small enough for individuals to make a real difference.
~ ~

Labels: , , ,

Add to Technorati Favorites Tweets by @ZalmiU