Prince Philip asked to save part of Jerusalem

Duke of Edinburgh drawn into real estate row over the famous Russian Compound in Jersusalem.


The Duke of Edinburgh has been unwittingly drawn into a row by the chairman of Israel's Likud-Herut party in Britain, property businessman Zalmi Unsdorfer, over a piece of prime real estate - the famous Russian Compound in the heart of Jerusalem.

One part of the area is known as Sergei's Courtyard, built in 1890 for the benefit of pilgrims visiting Palestine and named after Tsar Alexander II's son Sergei Alexandrovich, head of the Imperial Society of Russian Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land.

It was used by the British, during the Mandate, as its centre of government and currently houses a number of Israeli government offices and a courthouse.

Mr Unsdorfer and a number of his political allies in Israel have become increasingly vexed over the fact that Israel has agreed to give back the Russian Compound to its original owner - the Russians.

Israel acquired the Compound in 1964 for $3.5 million (about £1.96 million at today's exchange rates) in what became known as the Orange Deal. Lacking hard currency, Israel was alleged to have paid in citrus fruit.

Three years ago Vladimir Putin, then Russian president and now prime minister, laid claim to Sergei's Courtyard as the property of the Russian Orthodox Church. Israel has been involved in talks for their return ever since. According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, Sergei Stepashin, head of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, suggested that Russia's famous oligarchs, Roman Abramovich and Arkady Gaydamek, had agreed they would pay for a new courthouse and that Israel would receive other compensation, but there has been no confirmation of that scheme nor any figures made public.

According to Mr Unsdorfer, the proposal to return the Russian Compound is as serious as Britain returning the Elgin Marbles to Greece. "A lot of people in Israel are very angry about this and want it stopped,"he said.
Now he has sought the help and support of Prince Philip, who is reputed to be Grand Duke Sergei's closest surviving heir.

Mr Unsdorfer has written to the Prince saying: "Lawyers appealing this move maintain that Mr. Olmert's government has even less legal right to dispose of this property than Mr Putin has rights to claim it back for Russia.

"Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Israel absorbed over a million Russian Jews who fled Soviet oppression. Now that it seems Russia is reverting to its Cold War ways, it would be deeply offensive to these émigrés to see a potential KGB base being gifted to Mr Putin in the heart of their adopted capital city".

He told Prince Philip: "It has been widely held that, as Sergei Alexandrovich died without children, you are probably the only truly legitimate claimant to this Romanov family property. I have it on good authority that a single letter from Your Royal Highness would halt this nefarious transaction in its tracks and probably stall it for many years to come."

Mr Unsdorfer suggested that the Prince's intervention could lead to the property being placed in a special trust, prior to becoming a heritage centre for the many Russian pilgrims who still visit Jerusalem every year.

That ambition has not yet been rejected. He has received a reply from an aide of the Prince, saying that "I am currently making enquiries on behalf of Prince Philip, after which I will be in touch".

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