October 12, 2008

Olmert's Parting Gift

HIS RESIGNATION already signed and submitted, disgraced Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is still selling the Land of Israel, piece by piece, to the lowest bidder.

The latest of Olmert’s giveaways is a $3.2 million piece of Jerusalem real estate known as Sergei's Court, which currently houses several Israeli government agencies including the Ministry of Agriculture, the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority as well as the non-governmental Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

Prior to 1967, when the Soviet Union severed ties with Israel, Sergei’s Court was used as a KGB base.

Olmert, with his Cabinet’s approval, offered the property to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as – what the one Israeli news service called – “reconciliation gift” during his trip to Moscow this week, and Israel has already begun proceedings to transfer the property to Russia.

In return for this generous gift, Israel will receive nothing.

Olmert seems to hope, however, that the gesture will warm Medvedev’s heart (or Putin’s) to reverse its more than half century long real-politik foreign policy of courting Israel’s numerous anti-American enemies and providing them with sophisticated weaponry and technology.

Playing down the gift, Olmert told the press it was merely “a small, symbolic matter,”

This description more accurately describes the Israeli bicycle uniform and a bicycle GPS system, Olmert gave President Bush in January at the start of Bush’s trip to Israel in January.

But Olmert’s characterization of the gift to Russia is more accurate when compared to his previous proposals.

When Olmert spearheaded the 2005 Disengagement plan for his boss Ariel Sharon, Olmert staked his career on giving away pieces of the country.

Shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Olmert declared that Israel must unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank (or as Jews call it, Judea and Samaria), in a process he called “Convergence.”

Even in his last months before resigning he called for the division of Jerusalem and handing over certain of its neighborhoods to the Palestinian Authority.

More recently, he has even called those who do not wish to create a Palestinian terror state and return Israel to the pre-1967 borders once characterized by the late Abba Eban as “Auschwitz borders,” as “delusional fantasists.”

Olmert’s plans were only stymied by his own ineptitude in handling the 2006 Lebanon War and his own love of gifts, including an odd love of collectible pens, which resulted in several police investigations during his term in office, which led to his resignation.

But the relatively “small” gift of Sergei’s Court must be moved through wider lens.

Transferring the property dangerously gives a powerful sponsor of Israel's enemies a safe house in Israel's capital.

It must properly be seen as part of a larger pattern of Russia’s vying for influence in the Middle East. Russia is now renovating a Syrian sea port for its exclusive use as its base of naval operations in the Mediterranean. In June, Russia was given the deeds to three plots of Land by the Palestinian Authority. And now, Russia will have another base in Israel’s capital.

Medvedev’s statement to Olmert last Wednesday that Russia would “continue to play an important role” in the Middle East should not be taken lightly, especially given its past support for Arab wars against Israel, its support for Iranian nuclear program and weapons sales to Iran, arms transfers and diplomatic support for terrorist groups like Hamas, and its expected arms sale to Syria.

Just one day before Olmert left to Russia, Defense Minister Ehud Barak even accused Russian of destabilizing the Middle East with the Syrian arms sale.

Another problem is that giving away this disputed property for nothing in return may set a bad precedent for other claims made by the Russian, Greek and Catholic Churches for various properties in Israel, including the land on which the Knesset and the Prime Minister’s Office sit.

The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel, a conservative Israeli legal and lobbying organization has protested against the transfer, making headlines in Israel.

The legal status of the property has been dispute for decades, compounded by the split in the Russian Orthodox Church into Red and White branches, which only until relatively recently had competing claims.

The Courtyard was built for pilgrims by Russian Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, an influential member of the Russian royal family and for the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society (IOPS) which he founded chaired. Alexandrovich was assassinated in 1905 and left no heirs.

Various governments who have had control of Jerusalem, the Ottomans, the British, Jordan and Israel have recognized various owners and used the Compound and the Court in different ways.

In 1984, the White branch of the IOPS relinquished all claims to property in Western Jerusalem in exchange for $7 million.

No one disputes that the Israel can transfer any of its properties, regardless of poor precedent and politics involved.

But when Olmert resigned from the office of Prime Minister, his government became a “caretaker” government. This means that Olmert only remains in office to ensure the smooth operation of the government, not to continue pursuing his own policies.

For instance, in 1999, Supreme Court Judge Dalia Dorner issued a preliminary order against a caretaker government’s decision to close the Orient House, which was a PLO base in Jerusalem. In 2006, the Supreme Court decided that a caretaker government could not even nominate representatives to religious councils.

No less than two weeks ago, on the Judicial Selection Committee, three Israel’s Supreme Court judges led by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch blocked the appointment of new judges by the 9 member Committee – which only has two representatives of the government – stating that such an action must wait until a new government is formed.

The Legal Forum protested on these grounds and wrote to Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz requesting that he advise the government against transferring the court.

Yitzhak Bam, a member of the Forum who is handling the petition, wrote to the attorney general that "[a] caretaker government is not entitled to take important and irreversible decisions” such as handing over "important property in the center of Jerusalem to a powerful foreign state with interests in this region and imperial designs.”

After the Cabinet approved of the transfer of the Courtyard on Sunday, the Legal Forum filed suit in Israel’s Supreme Court and its appeal is scheduled for October 12th.

Although the new leader of Olmert’s party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni approves of the deal and is expected to soon replace Olmert as prime minister, it is not yet known what Livni’s government coalition will look like and what guidelines she will have to agree to in order to form it.

There is also the possibility that Livni will be unable to garner the requisite support to form a government, which will necessitate the holding of new elections in which former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the leader of the conservative Likud party is projected to win.

Olmert’s resignation was the ultimate consequence of the Israeli public’s demand – based on his many failures and disgraces - that he step down. By resigning, Olmert simply lost his democratic authority to continue pursuing his shameful policies of gifts and goodwill gestures.

Unfortunately, Israel’s judiciary is notoriously unsympathetic to the complaints of what it views as extremist ultra-nationalists who disagree with trading away their country and state assets for nothing in return. And, in the end, Olmert’s gift of Sergei Court to Russia will be the last in a long line of losses to the State of Israel during Olmert’s reign.

This article can also be found on the Website of the Legal Forum for the Land of Israel.