Cablegate: Russia Returns to the Holy Land

DE RUEHMO #1991/01 1931227
P 111227Z JUL 08

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 MOSCOW 001991


E.O. 12958: DECL: 07/11/2018

B. MOSCOW 1255

Classified By: Acting Political Counselor Robert Patterson for reasons
1.4 (b/d).

1. (C) Summary: The return to Russia of historic properties
in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the end of the visa
regime for travel to Israel, are the latest indicators of
deepening Russia-Israel relations that depend significantly
upon personal contacts as well as official channels. The
properties, which will be used to establish a Russian
consulate in Jerusalem and cultural and religious centers,
will enhance Russia's soft power by increasing the Russian
presence at a time when immigration to Israel has declined.
Russia continues to benefit economically from these emigres,
many of whom have established businesses in Israel that trade
with Russia or have returned to their homeland to work in
Russia's booming economy. The end of the visa regime is
expected to significantly increase personal and economic
contacts between these countries that currently enjoy deep
cultural ties and the strongest political relationship in
their often stormy history. Close ties to Israel do not
appear, however, to have had much impact on Moscow's
"pragmatic" positions on issues of concern to Tel Aviv, such
as arms sales to Syria. End summary.

Israel and Palestinians Return Russian Property
--------------------------------------------- --

2. (U) Russia will receive several properties in Jerusalem
and the West Bank from the Palestinian Authority (PA) and
Israeli government, which are returning land that Russia
originally acquired in the nineteenth century for the
construction of Orthodox churches and facilities for Russian
pilgrims to the Holy Land. During a June ceremony, the PA
formally gave Russia ownership of three plots of land in the
West Bank that will be the site of new Russian cultural and
religious centers. Russian and Israeli officials announced
in May that they were close to finalizing the terms for
Russia to take ownership of a large compound in Jerusalem
that includes St. Sergiev Church and an adjacent building
originally used as a religious mission. As one of his last
acts as President, Putin ordered that the GOR provide $4
million to restore the church.

Return to the Holy Land Symbolizes Russian Revival
--------------------------------------------- -----

3. (C) xxxxx
told us that the return of historically Russian property in
the Holy Land was a symbol of Russia's post-Soviet cultural
and religious renaissance. The properties, which had either
been abandoned by the USSR or sold to Israel, would be used
for facilities for religious pilgrims and tourists, as well
as Russian language schools and clinics that would benefit
local residents, including the large number of
Russian-speaking Israelis. The MFA was also considering
establishing a consulate at the compound in Jerusalem.
xxxxx said that at present Russia had only its Embassy in
Tel Aviv and a small Mission in Ramallah to handle relations
with the PA. A presence in Jerusalem would help provide
assistance to the many Russian citizens living in Israel as
well as Russian tourists, whose numbers, presently estimated
at 200,000 per year, were expected to grow significantly
after the Russian-Israeli agreement to end visa requirements
became operative in September.

4. (C) xxxxx explained that countries in the region
recognized that providing land to Russia was a means to
improve bilateral relations and attract Russian tourists. In
addition to Israel and the PA, Jordan had already given
Russia land on the banks of the Jordan River historically
associated with Jesus' baptism (ref A). Lebanon also had
property that once belonged to Russia, although discussion of
its return had not begun.

5. (C)xxxxx that GOR
interest in the Holy Land property was part of the Russian
desire to "return" to the Middle East in various ways:
politically by resurrecting ties with Arab states that had
been allowed to atrophy during the 1990s, diplomatically by
enhancing its role in the Middle East Peace Process, and
culturally by re-establishing a physical presence for the
Russian State and Church. For Russians, it was only fitting
that the Orthodox Church should have a presence in Jerusalem
along with the other ancient Christian dominations already
present: the Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox. xxxxx
said that the PA hoped that giving Russia land for cultural
and religious facilities would attract Russian tourists to
the West Bank.

Moscow 00001991 002 of 003

Working for the "Glory of Russia"

6. (U) xxxxx explained that while the GOR would formally
own the properties in Israel and the West Bank, the
non-governmental Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society (IOPS)
would run the cultural and religious facilities. Although
the GOR referred to the IOPS, founded in 1872, as "one of the
oldest" Russian NGOs, the organization is not independent of
the government. The head of Russia's Audit Chamber, Sergey
Stepashin, is Chairman of the IOPS and MFA Middle East
Department Deputy Director Oleg Ozerov heads its
international section. The MFA and IOPS signed a memorandum
of cooperation in June to facilitate GOR assistance to the
organization's efforts to develop Russia's "humanitarian,
scientific and cultural relations" with states in the Middle
East. During a June address, FM Lavrov highlighted IOPS'
role in "peoples' diplomacy" that supplemented official
political contacts. He praised IOPS for helping Russia's
spiritual revival and demonstrating that the country was an
"influential and respected power." Lavrov closed, "In order
to worthily return to the Holy Land, we must the
glory of Russia!"

7. (U) IOPS will depend financially upon Russian oligarchs,
including Roman Abramovich and Israeli resident Arkadiy
Gaidamak, both of whom reportedly agreed to the GOR request
that they pay expenses related to acquiring the compound in

Russian Emigres: A "Bridge" Between Russia and Israel
--------------------------------------------- ---------

8. (C) xxxxx said that the immigration of Russian Jews to
Israel created a bond between the two countries that had a
profound impact on Russia-Israel relations. This did not
mean that those who fled Soviet anti-Semitism had pressured
their new homeland for closer ties with the country that had
repressed them. Instead they created in Israel a center of
Russian culture and formed a "bridge" between the countries.
xxxxx said that many
Russian-speakers in Israel maintained strong ties to their
homeland and some had even returned. The Israeli Embassy
estimated that "tens of thousands" of Israel's
Russian-speakers currently live and work in Moscow. xxxxx
said that he personally knew many Russian-speaking Israelis
who came to participate in Russia's economic boom. With
their knowledge of Russian language and culture, plus
university degrees and business experience gained in Israel,
Europe or the U.S., they could easily find opportunities here.

Emigres Create "Warm Feelings" for Israel

9. (C)xxxxx, differentiated the Jews who fled Soviet oppression
and anti-Semitism in the 1970s and 1980s from those who left
in the 1990s to avoid the chaos and uncertainty of
post-Soviet Russia. The latter group did not leave as
"ideological enemies" and maintained positive feelings for
their homeland. Thanks to cable television and the Internet,
they have been able to maintain contact with Russia. While
this has been the experience of Russian immigrants who landed
in different countries, xxxxx said it was especially
acute in Israel where Russian-speakers were one-seventh of
the population. This played well within Russia, where a
Russian cultural foothold in the Middle East generated "warm
feelings toward Israel." During Israel's 2006 war with
Lebanon, Russian television showed Russian-speaking Israeli
soldiers, which helped heighten Russian sympathy for Israel's
situation. xxxxx cited public opinion polls that
showed Russians were more inclined to have a favorable
opinion of Israel than the U.S.

10. (C) xxxxx said that immigrants to Israel and
elsewhere extended Russia's cultural reach, which the GOR
recognized as a means to project at least the perception of
influence. For example, the World Congress of Russian Jewry,
an organization that represents Russian Jews in 35 countries
and receives government support, met in May in Jerusalem
where Russian Federation Council member Boris Shpigle said
that Russian Jews must cultivate a special relationship with
their homeland. xxxxx stressed that with the exception
of Ukraine and the Baltic, where Russia had serious political
concerns, the GOR saw its compatriots abroad not as a "fifth
column" but as a bridge between their homeland and adopted
countries. In Israel, a country of which some of Russia's
biggest oligarchs were citizens, the GOR hoped this would
provide opportunities for investment and give Russia access
to Israeli technology. Israeli investment might also come to

Moscow 00001991 003 of 003

Russia, as it did in the case of Lev Levayev, whose
development company is reportedly undertaking large-scale
projects in Moscow and will expand its existing jewelry
factory in Perm. xxxxx thought Russia-Israel trade,
which is estimated at $2.3 billion in 2006, could be several
times higher.

Immigration to Israel is "Dead"

11. (C) While Russia continues to benefit from the presence
of its existing emigres in Israel, Russian immigration to
Israel is "all but dead" according to Leonard Terlitskiy, the
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society's representative in the CIS.
Terlitskiy, who was among the first Jews to leave the USSR
during the Brezhnev era, told us that "anyone who wanted to
leave has already left." The Russian economy offered enough
opportunities and anti-Semitism is not the problem it once
was, allowing Jews to remain where they face less chance of
becoming a victim of terrorism than they would in Israel.
Russian daily Vremya Novestey reported that in 2007, only
6,700 people immigrated from the CIS to Israel, compared to
34,000 in 2001. Meanwhile, 38,000 Israeli nationals were
known to have returned recently to live in Russia and the CIS.

12. (C) xxxxx thought that the prospect of visa-free travel
to Israel would allow Russian Jews to visit Israel and
develop an affinity for the country and their compatriots
there without the need to emigrate. Members of Moscow's
Jewish community recently told Vremya Novestey that they saw
no need to emigrate and could always visit Israel on a

Russia Maintains "Pragmatic" Policies

13. (C) Observers noted that despite the increasing cultural
proximity of Russia and Israel, the GOR maintained its
"pragmatic" stance on weapons sales to Syria and contacts
with Hamas, despite Israeli opposition. This stemmed from
Moscow's ability to compartmentalize aspects of a foreign
policy that fostered relations with Israel and Syria
simultaneously. xxxxx joked that perhaps Israel had evened
the score through military sales to Georgia, including
unmanned aerial drones, the shooting down of which recently
contributed to increasing tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi
(ref B). xxxxx and Israeli Emboffs told us separately that
military sales to Georgia were not an irritant in
Russia-Israel relations, although the GOR had asked Israel
not to sell offensive weapons systems to Tbilisi.

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