Owners of Jerusalem apartments located on land sold to private investors by the city’s major church landholders should think twice before selling, Israel’s Deputy Attorney General Erez Kamenitz said Sunday.
At a conference attended by more than 450 Jerusalemites whose rights to their homes hang in the balance, Kamenitz worked hard to convince the homeowners the government was working hard to find solutions.
Kamenitz was appointed by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in September to head an inter-ministerial committee that would look for ways to ensure those living on recently sold real estate in some of Jerusalem’s most densely populated residential neighborhoods would not find themselves out on the streets when their leases ran out.
Since Israeli independence in 1948, churches that have ancient land claims in the holy city have leased large tracts of land to quasi-governmental NGOs such as Keren Kayemet Le’Israel-Jewish National Fund. KKL has in turn sub-leased that land to homeowners for 99 years — a standard legal formulation for home ownership in Israeli real estate law, where only an estimated seven percent of land is actually privately owned. The homeowners then assumed their subleases from KKL would be automatically renewed, and that their homes were essentially owned.
Over the past seven years, however, some of the churches — particularly the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate — have been actively selling off their lands, particularly in Jerusalem, not to state bodies but to private developers. The sales in the capital have included areas in Rehavia, Nayot and Talbieh, Abu Tor and Givat Oranim.
Hundreds of homeowners in Jerusalem now worry that when their leases run out, they will see their homes revert to the investors who purchased the land from the churches, effectively losing these families their entire investment in what they believed was a de facto home purchase.
With some hoping to repurchase their homes from the new landowners, many are watching the value of their once-valuable properties plummeting. Banks have refused to provide new mortgages until the legal status of the properties is clear, while some owners report real estate agents have tried to convince them to sell for rock bottom figures.
Nava Bat-Zur, a residents’ activist who chaired Sunday’s conference, said she had heard several stories about real estate agents trying to badger homeowners on former church land to sell.
On one occasion, a realtor had turned up at a house while the family was sitting shiva for a recent death to try to convince the heirs to sell the property. In another incident, an agent offered to buy two apartments for the price of one. And in a third, a purchaser had snapped up an apartment in upscale Pinsker Street, in the Talbieh neighborhood, for just NIS 1,500,000 ($435,500) and then immediately sold it on for NIS 1,800,000 ($522,600).
“I did not come to make promises,” Kamenitz told the audience, in his first public statements on the issue, “but there is recognition that there is a problem that needs solutions and we will be producing recommendations very soon.”
He appeared to suggest all options were open to the government. “Sometimes you can solve a legal problem through negotiation, or political pressure, or legislation.” Referring to the new private landowners, whose identities are not all known, he said, “You can’t force someone to sell or transfer property rights. You have to persuade them. And if they can’t be convinced and negotiation will not provide the solution, you have to move to a new phase of confiscation of property rights, either by legislation or some other kind of government measure.”
Kamenitz spelled out three problems the committee was facing.
The legal standing of the property rights of all sides was not clear, he said. There was also a dearth of information. His committee had successfully mapped the properties sitting on land leased to the KKL-JNF but was having problems finding out about homes in a similar situation on land not owned by KKL. “Part of the reason I am here is to ask you, the homeowners, to help us with this information,” he said.
There were also economic issues to consider. “Supposing that we find that the only solution is to confiscate the land — who will pay, and how much will it cost [to compensate the new landowners]? The Finance Ministry might say it’s not sure it wants to spend on this issue. This is a question of policy.”
The issue had its political wrinkles. After the churches took the rare step last week of shuttering the Holy Sepulchre Church to protest Kulanu lawmaker Rachel Azaria’s private member’s bill to confiscate the land sold by the churches as well as moves by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to charge the churches millions of shekels for unpaid taxes on their businesses and land assets, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a freeze on both issues, and announced he was forming a new cabinet committee to look into the entire array of issues surrounding Jerusalem’s churches, to be chaired by Likud’s Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi.
“I can’t commit or give financial advice to those who have to sell their apartments, but we are working on a solution at the government level and serious legal work is being done,” Kamenitz told the homeowners, urging them to wait before selling at a loss. “I don’t see why a significant decision such as selling [property] can’t wait until the picture becomes clearer. We are at the peak of important work.”
MK Rachel Azaria, who was also at the Sunday evening gathering, was more direct. “Don’t sell!” she told the audience.
Azaria acknowledged her bill helped generate some of the international uproar over the churches’ financial controversies. “I said the bill was about church lands, whereas it is actually about lands that the church has already sold,” she said. “Many ambassadors and members of the foreign press understood after I explained to them that my bill is about protecting homeowners, and is not aimed at the church. This is a humanitarian issue.”
Her bill had been scheduled to be debated at the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee last Sunday, but was postponed for a week after the Holy Sepulchre protest, and was then frozen to await the conclusions of the Hanegbi committee.
Azaria told homeowners that Hanegbi would be working hand in hand with Kamenitz and his team.
Some critics blame KKL for failing to either renew the original leases with the churches or purchase the land before it was sold to private developers. Danny Atar, KKL’s chairman, who was expected to address the meeting, chose at the last minute to send a lawyer for the organization, Amir Baida, in his stead. To ripples of cynical laughter from the audience, Baida insisted that for years KKL had been the “only” body looking after their rights. He explained that KKL was cooperating fully with the Kamenitz committee, but could not be involved in negotiating over the future of the lands in question when it did not even know the identity of all the investors involved in the land purchases.
Under Israeli law, overseas companies wishing to buy real estate in Israel do not have to reveal their investors’ identities in order to register as owners in the Israel Lands Registry. KKL, which still holds decades of leases on much of the lands in question, has consistently defended its refusal to talk to the new landowners on the grounds that some of them are shielding their identities behind anonymous offshore companies.
Baida would not comment on whether KKL would be willing to be part of the negotiations with the landowners in future.
For Azaria, the situation was clear. “It cannot be that so many dunams in the capital can belong to just a few people, some of whom are not willing to identify themselves,” she said.