In a letter to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Putin slammed Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid for accusing Russia of war crimes in Ukraine, saying that Israel is using Ukraine to cover up for its own conflict with Palestine. (Related: Western media is literally peddling Neo-Nazi propaganda to prompt war between Russia and Ukraine.)
Transferring the ownership of the church land could cause some diplomatic trouble for Israel as its Western allies have sanctioned Russia over the Ukraine invasion.
Israel has maintained a certain degree of neutrality over the Russia-Ukraine war as it unfolded in recent weeks, but Lapid joined the rest of the world leaders last week in accusing Putin and his forces of war crimes and genocide.
"A large and powerful country has invaded a smaller neighbor without any justification. Once again, the ground is soaked with the blood of innocent civilians," Lapid said during his visit to Greece earlier this month.
"The images and testimony from Ukraine are horrific. Russian forces committed war crimes against a defenseless civilian population. I strongly condemn these war crimes."
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement in response to Lapid's remarks. "There was a poorly camouflaged attempt to take advantage of the situation in Ukraine to distract the international community’s attention from one of the oldest unresolved conflicts – the Palestinian-Israel one," it stated.
The Alexander Courtyard, which sits adjacent to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City, contains the Alexander Nevsky Church, which was purchased in 1859 by Czar Alexander II. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, two organizations claimed ownership of the land – the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Historic Society and the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society. The latter is connected to the Kremlin.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised Putin that Russia could take over the landmark in 2020 as a gesture that was meant to help free an Israeli woman, Naama Issachar, who was held in a Russian jail after a small quantity of marijuana was found in her backpack during a layover in Moscow. Israel's Land Registry commissioner then listed the Russian government as the owner of the church.
The courtyard had been part of a dispute between Orthodox Church organizations, with Jerusalem District Court Judge Mordechai Kaduri canceling the transfer of ownership to the Russian government in March 2022. Kaduri noted that Bennett will have to decide, as the matter was diplomatic.
Former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, who also served as the chairman of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, said Russia is "fighting for a return of the compound, and it is very difficult," adding that Israel was "playing both sides" of the issue.
Stepashin also noted that Russia has provided all of the necessary paperwork to show that it is the rightful owner of the courtyard, but Israeli authorities "decided to not decide" on the matter because of the ongoing Ukraine conflict.
Russia's government has been urging Israel to settle the dispute by making official the ownership of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society of the Alexander Courtyard, and Stepashin has iterated that Russia will apply diplomatic pressure to get what it wants, if necessary. (Related: Former White House economist: Putin's war in Ukraine a bid to re-establish the Soviet Union.)
Russian analyst Alex Tenser said Israel is wary of handing over the property at this time, as Russia is being sanctioned by many Western countries due to its invasion of Ukraine.
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