Did Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu just travel to Moscow or did he also simultaneously go to a latter- day Canossa? Did Bibi obsequiously succumb to an outside power (in the manner of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV who prostrated himself before pope Gregory VII in medieval Canossa)?
Reportedly Netanyahu rushed off to Moscow to plead with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin not to sell Syria advanced rocketry. Previous Israeli and American entreaties failed to dissuade Russia from pressing ahead with the deal or, earlier, from the startup of Iran’s only nuclear plant.
With the Cold War behind us, we might expect a cooperative rather than an audaciously obstructionist Russia. What we witness, however, is too déjà vu for comfort, too eerily reminiscent of the defunct USSR.
Instead of moving forward as a genuine democracy, we find Moscow donning democracy’s trappings while performing old-time realpolitik stunts. It’s not an outright foe but never quite a friend, and very obviously determined to stake its claim, by any means, to superpower status.
It’s almost as if Russia relishes being unpredictable and inscrutable. Its duplicity hardly paints Russia as the neutral force for peace it purports to be and its undertakings plainly cannot be relied upon.
Israel is justifiably nervous, which is why Netanyahu opted to intercede at the highest Kremlin echelons. Significantly, however, the Russians wouldn’t receive him without preliminary humiliation.
Before Netanyahu was at all allowed to land, Putin insisted that Israel forthwith transfer to Moscow final control of the Russian Compound’s famed Sergei’s Courtyard (including the once-sumptuous “Sergei Imperial Guesthouse”).
It’s smack-dab in the very heart of Jerusalem – in the western part thereof, the one that lies within the Green Line, the one which ostensibly Israel may be allowed to keep after it relinquishes all it liberated in its 1967 war of self-defense.
With friends like Putin, we need no enemies. He deserves none of the consideration that might perhaps be extraordinarily extended a bosom buddy (though genuine allies wouldn’t pursue archaic pretexts for a footing in another nation’s capital and cradle of its heritage).
Besides, Putin doesn’t politely request a cordial gesture. Moscow harps on “the return of Russian property,” declaring that there’s no contesting “the legitimacy of Russian claims to the St. Sergius Metochion, the building of the Russian church mission and various other facilities in Jerusalem.”
Netanyahu, desperate for an audience with the Muscovite powers-that-be, lost no time and ordered the overnight eviction from compound premises of the Agriculture Ministry. Indeed, it was all so sudden that ministry employees had to be sent home on indefinite leave.
Yet that’s the least troublesome consequence (the blow to national sovereignty notwithstanding). In Kremlin hands, these holdings would de facto become extraterritorial. What if terrorists were to flee and find refuge therein? Would IDF troops break into Putin’s toehold in one of the world’s touchiest geopolitical hotspots?
Russia, siding with our existential foes, won’t alter its policies, even if sweetened by gifts of prime Jerusalem acreage, regardless of the symbolism and prestige involved. It won’t set aside entrenched interests even for foreign relics of yesteryear’s imperialism.
The precedent, additionally, might whet other appetites. Russian territorial claims here aren’t limited to Sergei’s Courtyard. The Greek Orthodox Church owns the land on which the Knesset and prime minister’s residence stand. If the Agriculture Ministry can be ejected, why not the Jewish parliament and the head of government?
The entire compound was chartered from the Ottomans by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1858 to lodge pilgrims. The Sergei Complex, occupying nine compound acres, was constructed decades afterward by then-president of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, to accommodate visiting aristocrats.
The Turks classified Sergei’s property as private and emphatically not Russian state holding. They confiscated the compound in World War I and the British Mandate requisitioned it again postwar, while “White” and “Red” Russian churches vied for ownership.
Israel purchased most of the compound from the USSR in 1964, but, being cashed-strapped then, paid $3.5 million in … oranges. The Sergei Building, church and courtyard weren’t included in the transaction and, until the Six Day War, served as a KGB spy nook. Ex-KGB hotshot Putin refuses money in exchange.
Who was the Sergei whose individual real estate holding Putin elevates to Russia’s sacred national heirloom?
Grand Duke Sergei – son of Tsar Alexander II, brother of infamous Tsar Alexander III and uncle to last Tsar Nicholas II – was an avid practitioner of the recurrent Romanov theme: “Beat the Jews and save Russia.”
His Jew-revulsion was unrivaled even by his royal kinfolk’s rabid anti-Semitism.
In 1891 – mere months after Sergei’s Building went up in Jerusalem – his brother appointed him Moscow’s governor-general. Sergei’s first decision was to uproot the city’s 30,000 Jews. Moscow was to be “cleansed” in three phases – the poorest and least-veteran Jewish inhabitants ousted first and the richest and longest-residing removed last.
The banishment edict was published on the first day of Passover. Next night policemen swooped down on Jewish homes, roused entire frightened families and drove thousands of men, women and children to filthy lockups. Jews who hid out in dark alleys and cemeteries were rounded up and roughed up. All, shorn of their possessions, were later driven out like vermin. Many were tortured. The infirm died in transit. Some were dragged in wooden manacles, like outlaws, to do hard labor in distant prisons.
Several expulsion installments later, Moscow was rendered virtually judenrein. In Sergei’s Russia, moreover, Moscow’s deported Jews were the lucky ones. Elsewhere, Sergei’s clan unleashed gruesome pogroms – painstakingly premeditated as diversionary tactics to quell internal unrest – in which Jews suffered manifestations of barbaric butchery eclipsed only by the horrors of the Holocaust.
Thus if Putin speaks in terms of “national birthright,” why not also Israel? Why not demand minimal quid pro quo – a central sliver of Russia’s capital for a central sliver of Israel’s capital?
Why not demand – in return for one ruthless Russian despot’s property, for which Putin yearns nostalgically – that Putin pay with what Sergei stole from the Jews he robbed and exiled? Moscow’s Zaryadye historical district, adjacent to Red Square, was Muscovite Jewry’s hub (particularly the sizable Glebov Yard, site of the then-Jewish ghetto). Why not award that area to Israel in return for Sergei’s Courtyard?
Putin would likely balk and assert that Israel isn’t heir to the Jews Sergei dispossessed, in which case Netanyahu should have noted that Putin’s Russia isn’t heir to Sergei (strictly speaking, his closest living relative, Britain’s Prince Philip, is).
But supplicants at Canossa evince no pride and certainly don’t talk back.
Claims for a pound of Jewish national flesh, apparently, aren’t only made by Arabs. We owe slices of our capital to all sorts of latecomers, conquerors, glory-seekers, clout-hunters and would-be meddlers in our volatile region.
Irresolute governments, predisposed to cede some parts of Jerusalem “for peace,” won’t shrink from surrendering other parts “for (improved diplomatic) palaver” – even bits of Jerusalem’s downtown, where our tenure isn’t defamed as controversial or precarious.