Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded late on Sunday in a letter to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, that the Alexander Nevsky Church, in the Old City of Jerusalem, be immediately transferred into Russian hands, after it was promised by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Putin's persistence over this impressive landmark could not only ignite a diplomatic clash between Israel and Russia, but also risks a wave of criticism from the whole international community.
It comes at a time when Russia has expressed its displeasure at Israel's statements on the alleged massacre of civilians in Ukraine.
On Sunday, Ambassador Alexander Ben Zvi received a summon to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow to clarify statements made by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
“There was a poorly camouflaged attempt to take advantage of the situation in Ukraine to distract the international community’s attention from one of the oldest unresolved conflicts – the Palestinian-Israel one,” the Russian ministry said.
The Alexander Nevsky Church, also known as the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity is a significant asset of the Russian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem, located in the heart of the Christian Quarter.
The holy site originally hit the headlines in 2019, after Naama Issachar was imprisoned in Moscow due to possession of cannabis on Russian territory. In order to release the young Israeli, Netanyahu promised Putin the Alexander Nevsky Church.
Russia has been under de facto ownership of the OPS since 1890, and because it was originally claimed by the Ottoman Empire, it was recognized as belonging to "the glorious Russian kingdom", a name for the Russian empire, which no longer exists today. Regardless, Moscow requested in 2017 that Israel recognize the Ottoman designation of the site.
In 2020, Netanyahu decided that the dispute of ownership on the Christian landmark fell into the category of "holy sites" and thus could not be resolved in a court of law. Shortly afterwards Israel's Land Registry Commissioner indeed registered the Russian government as the owner of Alexander's Courtyard.
However, under the new Bennett administration, the ruling was handed back to the Supreme Court, which placed the final recognition on hold. A committee was set up in 2021 to determine ownership, but it had not yet convened.
Russian impatience is emerging to the surface, and the letter Putin sent to Bennett on the matter was brought to public attention by Sergei Stepashin- former Russian prime minister and head of the association in charge of Russian assets in the Middle East.
Stepashin, amid his visit in Israel, criticized Israel for stalling on the Alexander Nevsky Church dispute due to the war in Ukraine.
"Now we are fighting for the return of the Compound, and it is very difficult: we were almost there, we worked for five years, we found all the historical documents, but the situation with Ukraine occurred, and Israel behaved as it often does – playing with both sides, playing ping pong with everyone,” said the Russian diplomat.
Alex Tanzer, a commentator on Russian affairs, claims that the war in Ukraine and the West's sanctions has turned the dispute over the the Alexander Nevsky Church, from a small-scale local conflict to an international one. Transferring the landmark to Russian hands could lead to harsh diplomatic consequences for Israel.