The ongoing proprietary dispute over Jerusalem's Villa Salameh, which is located in the in Talbiyeh neighborhood, may soon be cause of a diplomatic incident between Israel and Belgium.
The grand estate has been used as the Belgian consul-general's residence since 1948, but it appears that the Belgian government has not been paying rent on the property, which has a market value of $15 million, for years.
Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann recently granted a request by the property owner, London-based Israeli businessman David Sofer, to sue the Belgian government for defaulting on the payments.
Friedmann reportedly stipulated that the proprietor may sue the Belgian government only for the rent owed to him and that he cannot demand the Belgian consul be evicted.
Belgium's ambassador to Israel, Danielle del Marmol, was recently summoned to the Foreign Ministry, where she was informed of the Israeli decision to allow the suit.
The villa (Photo: Alex Kolomoisky)
Sofer claims the Belgian government owes him seven years of back rent – which amounts to NIS 10 million (about $2.66 million).
Sofer purchased the villa several years ago, under the Absentee Property Law, which allows that State to transfer deeds of unclaimed property to the State Development Authority.
He reportedly approached the Belgians several times, but was told that since according to their records Villa Salameh was owned by Palestinians and confiscated by Israel, and since Belgium did not recognize the legitimacy of the Absentee Property Law, the rent has been paid to the villa's Palestinian owner.
The Belgians further claim that the matter of propriety is a diplomatic one, which can be resolved only after Israel and the Palestinian agree on the final diplomatic status of Jerusalem. At this time, they said, Israel has no claim to the property.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has also weighed in on the matter, as her staff, along with staffers in the Justice Ministry, has been studying the complex predicament. They concluded that the matter had no diplomatic bearing, only a legal one.
"The Foreign Ministry sees the matter as a legal dispute and is only involved since one of the sides is a foreign bureau," said the ministry in a statement.
The Belgium Embassy declined comment.