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 visits Moscow to try to iron out serious policy differences between the two countries.
After years of contacts, 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, now 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 turret-like structure at the intersection of two downtown streets and the sand-colored fortress-like 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 importantly, Israel is concerned about Russia's role in helping, or not stopping, the nuclear program of Israel's archenemy, Iran.
Olmert hopes to talk through those issues during his two-day trip to Moscow. He was scheduled to meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday before returning to Israel.
Not everyone is happy about Israel's Jerusalem goodwill gesture. Hardline 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 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 the deal could set a precedent for other land claims.
A Russian official denied accusations 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, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon promised former Russian President Vladimir Putin the land would be returned.