The Russian Embassy in Israel on Thursday evening for the first time hosted its National Day reception in Jerusalem, a nod to Moscow’s April 2017 recognition of Western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The ritzy event took place at Sergei’s Courtyard, a historic complex in the central Jerusalem district known as the Russian Compound, which Israeli authorities handed to Russia a decade ago in a goodwill gesture.
It is widely believed to be the first-ever national day event by a foreign embassy to take place in Jerusalem.
“This is a holiday for Russia, and it’s a celebratory day that was initiated and takes place in Jerusalem, and I assume that there will many more days like this one in Jerusalem,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the event. “I know that we’re going to celebrate many, many years of cooperation between Israel and Russia in Moscow and also next year in Jerusalem.”
Virtually all foreign embassies in Israel hold their annual independence day or national day celebrations in the Tel Aviv area. Even the US, which earlier on May 14 relocated its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, will hold this year’s July 4th reception in Airport city, outside Tel Aviv.
In April 2017, Russia surprised many by recognizing Western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. However, Moscow has made plain that it considers East Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state and vehemently opposed the US administration’s December 6 decision to recognize all Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
In his speech, Russian Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov, too, highlighted the fact that this year’s Russia Day celebration is being hosted in Jerusalem. However, he stressed that the recognition of West Jerusalem as the capital was contingent on the eastern part of the city becoming the seat of a future State of Palestine after a peace deal has been reached.
“We stand ready to facilitate such an agreement,” he said.
Viktorov, who arrived in Israel earlier this month and has still to present his letter of credence to President Reuven Rivlin, hailed the growing friendship between Moscow and Jerusalem.
“It is obvious that in recent years our bilateral ties have been significantly upgraded,” he said. He also thanked Netanyahu for participating in person in this year’s Russia Day celebration.
“Let me suggest that your presence here today is a clear indicator of transformations in the relations between Russia and Israel,” he said, adding that Netanyahu’s presence sends “a very positive message.”
Viktorov also referred to Sergey’s Courtyard, noting that it was built more than 100 years ago. “This place was established as the first permanent spiritual and cultural mission of Russia in the Holy Land,” he said, thanking the Israeli government for handing it back to Russia in 2009.
Built in the 19th century for Russian pilgrims by Grand Duke Sergey Alexandrovich, the son of Tsar Alexander II, the courtyard was nationalized during the British Mandate.
“President [Vladimir] Putin, with whom we cooperate in so many areas, asked me to finalize the transfer of this unique property to its Russian owners. This was held up by bureaucracy,” Netanyahu said.
“But I was especially honored to have had the opportunity to tell him, ‘Here are the keys to Sergey’s Court,’ and now I’m especially honored and deeply moved to be able to celebrate Russia Day here.”
The prime minister, who was joined by his wife Sara, spoke at some length of his admiration for Russia.
“I have respect for its contribution to civilization and the courage of its people. I read, as a child and as an adult, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky many times. I’ve listened to Rachmaninov. We all know Stravinsky. The contributions of Russian culture are immense to world culture.”
The lavishly catered event, where Palestinian beer and Russian vodka were served, took place at the same time as the first game of the soccer World Cup, which is currently taking place in Russia. The match, in which the host team crushed Saudi Arabia 5-0, was screened on a television.
Both Netanyahu and Ambassador Viktorov, who started speaking after the game was over, referred in their speeches to the soccer tournament.
Viktorov mentioned that nearly 10,000 Israelis are traveling to Russia for the cup, and somewhat hesitatingly mentioned that his team won its first game. “Maybe it’s not that polite from the hosting country, but sports is sports,” he quipped.
Netanyahu said he watched parts of the game, saying that’s why he and his wife arrived late to the reception. “But I am a diplomat, so I cannot take sides,” he added. “May the best team win at the end.”