Ha'aretz, Israel
May 1 2005

Who is behind the shady Jaffa Gate deal?

By Danny Rubinstein


Who is the mysterious Jewish party behind the purchase of the Greek
Orthodox properties inside the Old City's Jaffa Gate? Could it be the
Israeli government itself?

It was first reported more than a month ago that the Greek Orthodox
patriarch of Jerusalem, Irineos I, had sold two buildings to an
unknown Jewish investor - the Palestinian-run Imperial and Petra
hotels, a row of shops and some houses in the Jaffa Gate plaza in
Jerusalem.


The report triggered off stormy reactions. Palestinian Prime Minister
Ahmed Qureia and other Palestinian Authority officials came out with
sharp denunciations of the deal, as did Jordanian leaders. The Greek
government also demanded that the matter be examined. In Israel, in
contrast, the affair did not stir much interest.

Irineos denied the report, but not always unequivocally. I didn't
sell, I didn't authorize the sale, I was misled, documents were
forged. Two weeks ago he published a notice in the media in English,
Greek, Arabic and Hebrew, declaring that any power of attorney that
he may have given, at any time, is null and void.

In view of the patriarch's denials, the buyers were expected to step
forward and say, Yes, we bought the property, we have proof, and
present the documents. But the mystery buyers kept mum.

The most vociferous protest came from the Arab Orthodox community.
Many of its members called for the patriarch's dismissal, deportation
from Israel and replacement by an Arab patriarch rather than a Greek
one.

The community has been demanding the Arabization of Jerusalem's Greek
Orthodox patriarchy for decades. The patriarch and the 17 members of
the Holy Synod of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, all
of whom are natives of Greece, manage vast holdings of lands and
buildings all over the country. The Arab Orthodox community says the
property belonged to their ancestors. The Greek priests did not bring
the houses and lands with them on the boat to the Holy Land, they
say. The Arabs complain that the Greek priests, some of whom are
corrupt, have been selling large chunks of the property to Jews, not
allowing Arabs any control of the assets.

Fickle and unreliable

Jordan, Greece and the PA have each appointed an inquiry committee to
examine the property sale at the Jaffa Gate. The committees started
work immediately and summoned Irineos for questioning. Their swift
action was apparently prompted not by the sale itself, the like of
which is frequently carried out by the patriarchy throughout Israel,
but the properties' sensitive location.

The Jaffa Gate Plaza is a site of historic, symbolic and strategic
importance. The Tower of David, overlooking the city, stands in the
plaza, and the roads leading to the Christian, Armenian and Jewish
quarters branch out from it. Kaiser Wilhelm II, for whom the Ottoman
rulers destroyed part of the wall to create the New Gate, marched
into the city from the plaza in 1898 and the armies of General
Allenby, the city's British conqueror, held their parade there at the
end of World War I. Most visitors to the Old City enter via the Jaffa
Gate. In a sense, whoever owns the property inside the Jaffa Gate
holds the key to the entire Old City.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarchy has already sold - or rather, leased on
a long-term basis - properties to Jews in Jerusalem - in the Rehavia
neighborhood, the Valley of the Cross, San Simon in Katamon and
Liberty Bell Garden - and in Jaffa - on Andromeda Hill and in the
Flea Market. But these deals never sparked off demonstrations and
protests like the Jaffa Gate deal has.

The committees' work has brought to light some details of the various
governments' positions on the affair. Irineos, summoned to Amman by
the Jordanian committee, denied having made the deal and promised to
include more Arabs in the properties' management, in accordance with
the patriarchy's constitution and regulations. The Jordanians
realized that appointing an Arab patriarch would be a significant
diplomatic move that could not be made at present, and for the last
few days they have been trying to calm things down.

The Greek Foreign Ministry sent a senior delegation to Jerusalem to
question the patriarch and speak with the patriarchy's senior
priests. According to reliable sources, the delegation concluded that
Irineos should be replaced by another Greek priest because he is
weak, isolated, frightened and feels persecuted, and therefore finds
it difficult to function.

The Greeks want a strong patriarch in Jerusalem, to prevent his being
replaced by an Arab. The Arabs - Palestinians, Jordanians and others
- on the other hand, prefer a weaker man at the head of the
patriarchy if an Arab patriarch cannot be appointed.

Irineos was called for a clarification meeting with Qureia, after
which he promised to cooperate with the Palestinian inquiry
committee. The committee is headed by Dr. Emil Jarjoui, a Christian
PLO activist and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. The
committee consists of leaders of Christian communities from the
Bethlehem area and three attorneys.

The Palestinian committee met with Irineos and asked him for
documents and information regarding the Jaffa Gate affair. They asked
for a power of attorney, to be used to obtain information on changes
in the properties' ownership from Israeli institutions such as the
Lands Administration, Tax Authority, Jerusalem Municipality and
others. Irineos refused. The committee found him fickle, evasive,
secretive and unreliable, according to sources. The other committees
formed the same impression.

Irineos blamed his former financial manager, Nikos Papadimas, who
fled Israel some four months ago. Irineos said Papadimas had forged
documents and used an authorization he had to sell a shop to make the
Jaffa Gate deal.

Papadimas, who is in hiding in the United States, confirmed to a
Greek journalist that he had signed the Jaffa Gate deal, but said he
did so at the patriarch's orders. Another senior patriarchy official
told the Jordanian committee that Irineos had asked him to sign the
deal papers in the patriarchy's name, and when he refused, took the
papers to Papadimas.

A long term investment

The leaks from the various committees indicate that the first steps
toward selling the Jaffa Gate properties had been made. But to whom?
It has been suggested that the investor or investors might be a
settlers' group buying up properties in Jerusalem's Arab quarters, or
perhaps a government agent.

According to Papadimas and other sources, the buyer was to pay $135
million to the patriarchy to lease the properties for 99 years. This
is a vast sum, not economically justified, since the properties are
occupied. Both hotels and all the shops are inhabited by protected
tenants who pay very low rent and cannot be evicted, unless they are
paid large sums of money. It is hard to believe that a supporter of
the settlers would spend so much money, especially if he could not
profit from the deal in the foreseeable future.

Settlers have always demonstrated an impressive ability to raise
funds for their cause from government and other public bodies. It is
possible therefore that the buyer is none other than the Israeli
government, directly or indirectly, as was the case for another
patriarchy property - Saint John's Hospice, adjacent to the Church of
the Holy Sepulchre. The money for that deal came from the Housing
Ministry at the instruction of then-housing minister David Levy,
acting under the guise of a foreign company.

The Israeli government has a clear interest in taking over properties
in the Jaffa Gate area before negotiations on Jerusalem's future.
Ownership of the Jaffa Gate area and the Armenian Quarter would
enable Israel to create a contiguous Jewish presence from the city's
west to the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall. For Israel, this
would be a long term strategic investment.

It is possible that an agent acting for Israel's government is lying
low for fear that exposure would lead to harsh international
criticism. Many countries would see the purchase of properties at
Jaffa Gate, located outside the pre-1967 borders, as a provocative
step in the light of efforts to revive the peace process.

It is not clear why Irineos would get involved in such a deal,
arousing the wrath of the Arab world and others. It could be because
of acute financial distress. The patriarchy's debt totals tens of
millions of dollars. Many church properties have liens against them
and the patriarch is having difficulty paying wages and operating
church institutions.

Meanwhile, Irineos is subject to threats, pressure and extortion by
his opponents within the patriarchy, various governments and agents
of powerful economic bodies that would not hesitate to employ
violence. Irineos seems to be maneuvering among them all, but many
believe that the Jaffa Gate affair will finish him off as the
patriarch of Jerusalem.