In rare move, Russian embassy to host its National Day party in Jerusalem

In nod to Moscow’s April 2017 recognition of western part of city as Israel’s capital, June 14 reception to be held at historic Sergei’s Courtyard

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

One of the restored buildings of Sergei's Courtyard, the late 1800s hostel for Russian pilgrims, now renovated to its former glory. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
One of the restored buildings of Sergei's Courtyard, the late 1800s hostel for Russian pilgrims, now renovated to its former glory. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The Russian embassy in Israel is hosting its annual National Day reception in Jerusalem, in a nod to Moscow’s recent recognition of the western part of the city as Israel’s capital.

Russia’s incoming ambassador Anatoly Viktorov has been inviting guests to a June 14 reception at Sergei’s Courtyard, a historic complex in the Jerusalem neighborhood known as the Russian Compound, which Israeli authorities handed to Russia a decade ago in a goodwill gesture.

In a surprise move in April 2017, Russia recognized western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. However, Moscow has made plain that it considers the eastern part of the city 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.

“We keep in mind that the specific parameters of a solution for the entire range of the issues of the Arab-Israeli conflict, including Jerusalem, should be coordinated at the direct talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians,” a spokesperson for the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv told The Times of Israel on Monday. “Russia is ready to further provide assistance to the achievement of relevant agreements between the parties.”

The spokesperson of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Emmanuel Nahshon, told The Times of Israel that the event “corresponds to Russia’s April 6, 2017, recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and reflects the good relations between the two countries.”

It has not yet been decided which Israeli government official will be present at the event, Nahshon said.

Virtually all foreign embassies in Israel hold their annual independence day or national day celebrations in the Tel Aviv area. The US, which earlier this month relocated its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, will not hold this year’s July 4th reception in Jerusalem, The Times of Israel has learned.

“We will comment on the July 4 event when we get closer to the event. We’re not ready to make further announcements,” a US embassy official told The Times of Israel on Monday.

In recent years, US ambassadors to Israel have hosted large Independence Day parties at their official residence in Herzliya.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara during a ceremony marking the US Independence Day at the residence of the US ambassador to Israel in Herzliya, June 30, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / DEBBIE HILL)

After years of renovation and restoration work, Sergei’s Courtyard, a former luxury hostel and outbuildings built in the late 19th century by Russia’s Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society to serve Russian pilgrims traveling to the holy land, was ceremoniously reopened last year to serve pilgrims to the Holy City.

The newly refurbished space is a nine-acre complex of verdant gardens with two Renaissance-styled towers (that now house public bathrooms) and surrounded by a square of two-story stone buildings, including a 22-room hotel.

One of the two Renaissance-styled towers in Sergei’s Courtyard, now housing the public bathrooms (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“Sergey’s Compound, which was returned to Russia in 2008, holds a unique place in the history of the Russian presence in the Holy Land,” the Russian embassy spokesperson said. “The decision to host the National Day reception there is not occasional. The Compound symbolizes our culture, traditions and represents a genuine Russian allotment in Israel and the Middle East in general.”

According to the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, known as BICOM, “Sergei’s courtyard” was built in the 19th century by Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the fifth son and seventh child of Tsar Alexander II of Russia as accommodation for Russian pilgrims.

“While the compound was nationalised during the British Mandate, Israel transferred ownership over the Courtyard to the Russian government in 2009,” the think tank wrote in a briefing ahead of the British Prince William’s visit to the region next month.

Citing a leaked US cable, Prince Philip — William’s grandfather — claimed rights to the buildings based on his family connection to Sergei as Philip’s grand-aunt was Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, the wife of Nicholas II – the final ruler of the Russian Empire – and youngest sister of Elizabeth who was Sergei’s wife.

“It is believed that Prince Charles first raised the claim to the property in the 1980’s with the Wikileaks documents suggesting demands persisted until recently,” according to BICOM. “In an article from 2011, the Daily Telegraph reports that ‘despite pleas from some Israelis, the Duke did not intervene as the plot was handed to Russia as a goodwill gesture.’”

In February, Russia’s deputy ambassador to Israel, Leonid Frolov, hinted in an interview with The Times of Israel that Russia may hold its National Day ceremony — which every year celebrates the June 12, 1990, Declaration of State Sovereignty of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic — in West Jerusalem.

Russian Deputy Ambassador to Israel Leonid Frolov at the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv, February 12, 2018 (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

The US administration’s recognition of “Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital, without indicating that part of the city will become the capital of a future Palestinian state, “greatly disrupted the peace process,” he said, adding that he failed to understand why Israelis so jubilantly celebrated President Donald Trump’s December 6 declaration.

Besides acknowledging the obvious — that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital — Trump also made plain that the final borders will be determined by negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, Frolov said.

“You see in Trump’s declaration what you like. But the fact that the declaration disturbs the peace process doesn’t bother you. No one doubts that Israel’s capital will be in Jerusalem. We are simply saying that the Arab population that lives in the Palestinian territories also deserves a capital in this holy city,” he said.

Jessica Steinberg contributed to this report.

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