How Politics Created an Unnecessary Dispute between Jerusalem Churches and the Israeli Government

March 12 2018

On February 25, the Greek Orthodox, Franciscan, and Armenian clergymen who jointly control Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher took the unprecedented decision of closing the church to protest the municipal government’s plan to begin taxing church land—that is, the real estate that Christian churches own and rent out as a source of income, not the actual properties used for religious functions. Thanks to the intervention of Prime Minister Netanyahu, the parties have since reached a solution, and the church was reopened after three days. Amit Barak explains how the dispute spiraled out of control:

The situation surrounding the lands threatens the Greek Orthodox patriarch Theophilos III’s seat. . . . [T]o satisfy [his critics within the church and without], he bashed Israel. He launched an international campaign, meeting with various world leaders and accusing Israel of persecuting Christians. I am of the opinion that he does not believe his own condemnations of Israel. . . .

To understand what is behind the controversy, one must understand the land issue. On some of the church lands in Jerusalem (especially those held by the Greek Orthodox patriarchate), residential neighborhoods were built after the lands were leased by the church to the Jewish National Fund (JNF). In recent years, the Greek Orthodox church decided to sell the land. This is a highly sensitive and very political issue. The church’s previous patriarch, Irenaios I, was unseated after he carried out such a move. Once news spread that the current patriarch, Theophilos III, was offering land for sale as well, various elements within the Greek Orthodox church began to protest and thus threaten Theophilos [who promptly bashed Israel].

These elements identify completely with the pro-Palestinian movement [and] with the Joint Arab List [in the Knesset], which are coordinating their actions with their allies in the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. In addition to their political opposition to selling land to Jews, they also criticized the low prices at which lands were [previously] sold in order to gain support among an Arab public that does not necessarily identify with their political line. . . .

Over the last five years, there is a process under way within the Christian Arabic-speaking community of integrating into Israeli society and enlisting in the IDF or in national service, [offered by the Israeli government as an alternative to conscription]. . . . It should be self-evident that the current dispute harms such positive developments.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Arabs, Israeli Christians, Jerusalem, Jewish National Fund

Syria’s Downing of a Russian Plane Put Israel in the Crosshairs

Sept. 21 2018

On Monday, Israeli jets fired missiles at an Iranian munitions storehouse in the northwestern Syrian city of Latakia. Shortly thereafter, Syrian personnel shot down a Russian surveillance plane with surface-to-air missiles, in what seems to be a botched and highly incompetent response to the Israeli attack. Moscow first responded by blaming Jerusalem for the incident, but President Putin then offered more conciliatory statements. Yesterday, Russian diplomats again stated that Israel was at fault. Yoav Limor comments:

What was unusual [about the Israeli] strike was the location: Latakia [is] close to Russian forces, in an area where the IDF hasn’t been active for some time. The strike itself was routine; the IDF notified the Russian military about it in advance, the missiles were fired remotely, the Israeli F-16s returned to base unharmed, and as usual, Syrian antiaircraft missiles were fired indiscriminately in every direction, long after the strike itself was over. . . .

Theoretically, this is a matter between Russia and Syria. Russia supplied Syria with the SA-5 [missile] batteries that wound up shooting down its plane, and now it must demand explanations from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. That won’t happen; Russia was quick to blame Israel for knocking over the first domino, and as usual, sent conflicting messages that make it hard to parse its future strategy. . . .

From now on, Russia will [almost certainly] demand a higher level of coordination with Israel and limits on the areas in which Israel can attack, and possibly a commitment to refrain from certain actions. Syria, Iran, and Hizballah will try to drag Russia into “handling” Israel and keeping it from continuing to carry out strikes in the region. Israel . . . will blame Iran, Hizballah, and Syria for the incident, and say they are responsible for the mess.

But Israel needs to take rapid action to minimize damage. It is in Israel’s strategic interest to keep up its offensive actions to the north, mainly in Syria. If that action is curtailed, Israel’s national security will be compromised. . . . No one in Israel, and certainly not in the IDF or the Israel Air Force, wants Russia—which until now hasn’t cared much about Israel’s actions—to turn hostile, and Israel needs to do everything to prevent that from happening. Even if that means limiting its actions for the time being. . . . Still, make no mistake: Russia is angry and has to explain its actions to its people. Israel will need to walk a thin line between protecting its own security interests and avoiding a very unwanted clash with Russia.

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More about: Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Russia, Syrian civil war