Israel hands Russia ownership of Jerusalem site

Israel is handing back ownership of a czarist-era landmark in the heart of Jerusalem to Russia, defusing a long-simmering dispute between the two countries right before Israel`s leader visits Moscow.

Last Updated: Mar 21, 2011, 20:22 PM IST

Jerusalem: Israel is handing back ownership
of a czarist-era landmark in the heart of Jerusalem to Russia,
defusing a long-simmering dispute between the two countries
right before Israel`s leader visits Moscow.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu`s office has not
disclosed the agenda for Thursday`s visit but he is expected
to urge Moscow not to sell sophisticated missiles to Syria and
to support efforts to keep Iran`s nuclear ambitions in check.

The return of ownership of the property known as Sergei`s
Courtyard, approved in 2008, appeared to be a goodwill gesture
ahead of the visit.

The hewn stone building, built in 1890 to accommodate
Russian pilgrims to the Holy Land, is a prominent edifice on
the Jerusalem landscape with its soaring turret and lush
garden. About a dozen workers were moving crates out of the
building Monday and loading them into trucks.

"Israel is vacating Sergei`s Courtyard in accordance with
the understandings reached between Israel and the Russian
Federation," an Israeli official said, speaking on condition
of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the
matter with the media.

The site was named for Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, a
son of Czar Alexander III, and is part of a complex known as
the Russian Compound. Israel bought most of it from the Soviet
Union in the early 1960s, paying with oranges because it
didn`t have hard currency.

Israel seized control of it after the Soviet Union
severed ties with the Jewish state following the 1967 Mideast
war. The two countries restored ties in 1991 and negotiations
to return the courtyard ownership to Russia began in the
1990s.

In 2005, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised former
Russian President Vladimir Putin the land would be returned.
Three years later, Israeli Cabinet formally agreed to hand
over the courtyard, which now houses offices of Israel`s
Agriculture Ministry and the Society for the Protection of
Nature in Israel.

Bureau Report