The transfer of one of Jerusalem’s most prime pieces of real estate to Russia will be finalized when the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) vacates its offices, following the completion of talks between Israel and Russia on Sunday.
In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert presented the Sergei building and its 9-acre courtyard with gardens and fishponds in the Russian Compound as a gift to the Russian government. He made the gesture during a visit to Moscow to persuade President Dimitry Medvedev not to sell arms to Syria and to back sanctions against Iran. The decision to transfer the property was made by the prime minister, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Finance Minister Roni Bar-On and Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann.
Last year, the Agriculture Ministry and the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites evacuated their offices in the compound. SPNI issued a request to continue working in the offices, but was denied by the Russian government.
Israel gained control of approximately 90 percent of the Russian compound in 1964, paying the Russian government $3.5 million in citrus fruits for the property due to lack of hard currency – hence the dubbing of the agreement the “Orange Deal”.
The Sergei building, not included in the sale, was completed in 1890, and served as a hotel for Russian aristocrats, royalty, and dignitaries on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It was named for brother of Tzar Alexander III, Grand Duke Sergei, then President of the Imperial Russian Orthodox Palestine Society. The property had been purchased by Tzar Alexander II in 1860 from the Ottoman Empire.
When the plan to give possession of the property to Russia was announced in 2008, opponents protested the giving over of Jerusalem heritage sites to foreign entities, and warned that Russia was not a strong enough ally to trust with the property. Then-candidate for Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat also disapproved of the plan, calling it a “dangerous precedent, giving property in the heart of Jerusalem to foreign interests.”
Russia has vowed to keep the area open to the public, and says it will restore the yard and buildings for use by Russian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem today.
The SPNI announcement comes just a day before Russian Premier Vladimir Putin’s Monday arrivalin Israel on an official state visit. The leader is expected to meet with top Israeli officials to discuss Iran’s nuclear progress. He will also dedicate a monument in Netanya to the valor of the Red Army in World War II. The large stone monument consisting of a pair of white wings, an unprecedented joint-state venturebetween Israel and Russia, will also honor the more than half a million Jewish Red Army soldiers who fought in the war.