Thursday, October 9, 2008

JERUSALEM | The Russians are coming to downtown Jerusalem, reclaiming ownership of a landmark with the approval of the Israeli government, just as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Moscow to try to iron out serious policy differences between the two countries.

After years of contacts, Mr. Olmert’s Cabinet agreed Sunday to hand over the small tract known as Sergei’s Courtyard. The area, which once accommodated Russian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, houses offices of Israel’s Agriculture Ministry and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

The property includes a lush garden and the massive buildings around it - a turretlike structure at the intersection of two downtown streets and the sand-colored, fortresslike wings leading from it.

The timing of the gesture is clear. After years of relatively smooth relations, serious problems have cropped up between Israel and Russia. One concerned Russia’s summer invasion of Georgia, which has become a close ally of Israel in recent years. More important, Israel is concerned about Russia’s role in helping, or not stopping, the nuclear program of Israel’s archenemy, Iran.

Mr. Olmert hoped to talk through those issues during his two-day trip to Moscow. He said after a Kremlin meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he received assurances that Russia would not allow Israel’s security to be threatened but offered no indication that he won the concrete promises he had sought on Russian arms sales or sanctions on Iran.

Israel is concerned that Russia could sell its enemies, Iran and Syria, advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems. That would make any strike at Iran’s first nuclear-power plant - which Russia is helping to build - more difficult.

“The highest levels of Russian government understand well the Israeli position and are aware of the ramifications that such sales would have on stability in the region,” Mr. Olmert said.

In recent months, Israel has done its best to make Russia happy. It has distanced itself from Georgia, announcing even before Georgia’s August war with Russia that it was cutting weapons sales to Tbilisi.

Israel later further restricted defense contacts and even instructed defense consultants not to visit the Caucasus nation.

Mr. Olmert said he discussed Georgia with Mr. Medvedev but offered few details, saying only that Mr. Medvedev said he “appreciates Israel’s careful and responsible stance during the Caucasus crisis.”

Not everyone is happy about Israel’s goodwill Jerusalem gesture. Hard-line groups bridle at any transfer of control in Jerusalem because they oppose Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts that would require sharing the city.

Israel TV described the transfer as “Russian autonomy in downtown Jerusalem.” The Cabinet decision says no major changes can be made at the site without the approval of both governments.

The official transfer may be delayed because of an appeal filed by the nationalistic Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, which said the deal is a “breach of Israeli sovereignty.”

Nachi Eyal, the group’s director, warned that the deal could set a precedent for other land claims.

A Russian official denied accusations that it seeks greater influence in the Middle East through the acquisition of Sergei’s Courtyard, calling its desire to own the place a matter of historical significance.

“This has nothing to do with what is being called imperial ambitions because it’s not a military base or something that can serve those purposes,” said Alexei Skosyrev, a political counselor at the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv. He said the building will be used as a Russian cultural center to “promote bilateral relations” between the two countries.

The site, named for Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, a son of Czar Alexander II, was built in 1890 and is part of the larger Russian Compound, most of which Israel purchased 45 years ago. It paid in oranges because it lacked hard currency.

Negotiations over the site began in the 1990s. In 2005, after years of lagging progress on the deal, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised former Russian President Vladimir Putin that the land would be returned.

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