The story of Villa Salameh, one of the most impressive buildings in Jerusalem, is a tale of a passion for beauty and luxury, of Palestinian emigration and loss, and of a titanic battle for its ownership
Only the most daring of the children in Jerusalem's Talbieh neighborhood in the 1940s dared to peek over the fence. The house known as Villa Salameh, at 21 Balfour Street, corner of Jabotinsky Street, was encircled by a fence from behind which rose a cacophony of sound that could be heard nowhere else: the cries of peacocks, which together with antelopes and hares and roosters formed a kind of miniature zoo on the grounds of one of the architectural masterpieces of the city.
Once a day the gate was opened and an expressionless Sudanese servant would emerge leading two huge St. Bernard dogs for their daily constitutional at the instruction of the villa's owner, Constantine Salameh, a distinguished Palestinian entrepreneur.
More than 50 years have gone by since the State of Israel impounded Villa Salameh, along with the property of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who became refugees in the wake of the 1948 war, but ownership of the villa is still a subject of legal disputation. Throughout this entire period the building has served as the residence of the Belgian consul-general in Jerusalem, and the current consul, Guido Courtois, also resides there. Israel maintains that it is the owner of the building, certainly since 1983, when it paid Constantine Salameh compensation for expropriating the villa - but this is disputed by both the Belgians and by Salameh's heirs.
A few weeks ago, a new front was opened in the legal battle when an Israeli businessman, David Sofer, asked the High Court of Justice to force the State of Israel to sell him the villa. According to the High Court petition, in 1981, after Sofer located Constantine Salameh in Egypt and played a key role in the transaction in which the state purchased the villa for a price representing a fraction of its true worth, he was promised that he would be able to buy the building.
The history of the villa and of the Salameh family is a mirror of the Israeli-Arab conflict. After World War I, Constantine Salameh, a native of Beirut, bought land in Talbieh from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, which was having financial difficulties at the time. Salameh dreamed of building a prestigious neighborhood for Christian Palestinians. In his English-language book, "Jerusalem Architecture" (Vendome Press), the Jerusalem architect and town planner David Kroyanker notes that in addition to the villa, Salameh built two apartment blocks adjacent to his residence in the square that bore his name (now known as Orde Wingate Square). "With its classical symmetry, fine stone detailing, clean, straight lines, and large, surrounding garden, the Salameh villa is a prime example of the fusion between neo-classical and modern architecture," Kroyanker observes.
Steps made of gray marble lead to the villa's main entrance, which is situated not in the front but on the side. The letters "CS" (standing for the first owner) are engraved above the door in the art deco style, which was popular in Europe in the 1930s. As Kroyanker notes, the house, which was designed by the French architect Marcel Favier, is based on the "liwan plan," which in Arab dwellings refers to the all-important central room that gives access to other, lesser rooms. Thus, the entrance of Villa Salameh leads to a double-height central hall, in the center of which is a marble octagonal fountain, from which other rooms branch off. On one side of the large hall is a wood-paneled dining room, next to which is the salon, or living room. A service elevator connects the dining room to the basement, which contained a kitchen, wine cellar, laundry room, servants' quarters, storerooms and a two-car garage.
An internal elevator connects the ground floor with the two upper floors. Each of the bedrooms has its own bathroom, in Italian marble. The door handles, accouterments and the decorations, including the lamps and the wood furniture, are all in art deco style and, along with every item in the villa, were all designed by the architect himself.
Some of the original furniture underwent artistic restoration in Belgium, the consul-general said this week, and a great many of the original lamps and other objects are well preserved to this day - even the old elevator is still functioning. He added that architects and groups that are interested in the building as a unique architectural achievement can visit by appointment.
Constantine Salameh was born in Beirut in 1887 to Greek Orthodox parents. He and his wife, Catherine Aboussouan, had four children; two of them, Charles, now 80, and Rene, 78, were born in Beirut, while the two younger offspring, Mirelle, 65, and Jean, 62, first saw the light of day in Jerusalem. The four Salameh children today reside in the United States and Europe. "Our family always had a Western orientation and frequently made visits to Switzerland and England," one of Salameh's grandsons, Constantine, 46, who studied engineering and business administration in London and the United States, related this week.
His father, Charles Salameh, graduated from the American University in Beirut in 1945 and returned home to Jerusalem in order to join his father's business.
"My grandfather had extensive businesses," he recalls. "He represented various American companies, such as Dodge, Cadillac and International Harvester, which sold agricultural equipment, tractors and trucks," grandson Constatine says. "In 1948, after the family moved to Beirut from Jerusalem, he continued to represent these companies from Beirut. My grandfather was sharp and open, a smooth businessman. I remember that even in his old age he was charismatic and had a powerful personality."
Did he tell you about Villa Salameh?
"He had many assets in Israel and used to talk about his large property holdings in general, not necessarily about the villa, which was just the tip of the iceberg. But he was fond of the villa and felt for it like a person feels for his home, the place that reflects his soul, the values he was raised in and his aesthetic sensibility. However, my grandfather didn't talk much about the villa, maybe because he wanted to lower a curtain over the memories and the things he loved, like his good friends in Jerusalem and his relatives there.
"My father suffered three traumas in his life: The first was when he lost his property in Israel, the second when the regime of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized his property in Egypt, and the third when he lived in Lebanon during the civil war there, and again lost his property. It wasn't easy."
According to the grandson, the entire family, the parents and the four children, left Jerusalem in the midst of the fighting that raged in the city in 1948. "They were compelled to leave the house in Talbieh because of the shooting and shelling, in which relatives and friends were killed. They had no choice but to leave, and the departure was an extremely sad event for them. Before leaving for Beirut, they leased the furnished villa to the government of Belgium. After that, my grandfather divided his time between his home in Beirut and a home in Alexandria, which he maintained until he was a hundred. He died in Beirut in 1990, at the age of 103.
During the years in which the family lived in Talbieh, the villa was managed by Catherine Salameh, with the aid of a retinue of servants and other employees. The children were looked after by Swiss and German nannies. Avraham Habilio, a former Israel Foreign Ministry official, recalls Rene Salameh, Constantine's son, from their joint membership in the nearby YMCA in the 1940s. Habilio, who is from a veteran Sephardi family in Jerusalem, which owns a factory that makes halvah, was a guest at the villa in that period and supplied a great deal of information to David Kroyanker, who devotes a fascinating chapter to the villa in a recently published book in Hebrew, "Talbieh, Katamon and the German Colony."
"Cathie Salameh was a thin, impressive woman, who collected her hair in a bun," Habilio recalls. "The Salameh house set the tone in those days in terms of design and the culture of colonial life. His children attended St. Jerome College, an Anglican institution on Nablus Road, and then went to the American University in Beirut. The library in the family's home included classic literature in English, French and German, encyclopedias, and books on art and science. There was a piano, too, and the private music teachers then were Jews."
In the late 1920s, Habilio says, Constantine Salameh and his father-in-law, Selim Aboussouan, who was a large-scale contractor, were involved in the construction of the French consulate, which was destroyed in the earthquake that struck Jerusalem in 1927. It was then that Salameh met the well-known French architect Marcel Favier, who designed the building. Salameh, who became friends with Favier, asked him to design an extraordinary home that no one would be able to copy.
"Favier, who had been sent to Jerusalem by the French Foreign Ministry, was not allowed to do private work," Habilio explains, "so he designed the Salameh home but entrusted the work to one of his assistants, Lucien Carvo. The construction of the French consulate was officially completed in 1930. Salameh worked on his villa during the same period, making use of the same materials and objects that were used in the consulate, thus reducing his expenses."
Work on the villa was completed in 1935. According to Habilio, the Salameh home was the talk of the town at the time, along with the two big dogs and the miniature zoo in the garden. Most of Salameh's friends were Jews, Habilio says. "My brother was friends with the family, and the Eliachar family, one of the veteran families of the Old Yishuv" - referring to the pre-Zionist Sephardi community in Palestine - "were close friends. Salameh was also close to the consular community in the city, hosting diplomats and doing business with them. I was a member of the youth section of the YMCA and became friendly with the Salameh children. I visited the house a few times."
The good life came to an end in the wake of the United Nations resolution of November 29, 1947, calling for the partition of Palestine and the creation of two states, one Jewish and one Arab. True, Jerusalem was to remain united under international control, but the two sides refused to accept this and the city quickly became a battle zone. Talbieh's Arab residents began to leave the neighborhood in the middle of February 1948. Habilio recalls that Salameh, who often went abroad on business, followed the recommendation of his good friend Eliahu Eliachar and did not leave Jerusalem after the UN resolution was passed.
Salameh stayed in Jerusalem until his presence in Talbieh drew the attention of the leaders of the Palestinian struggle. "He received threats from people in the Old City that his family would be murdered because he had decided to stay in Talbieh, because his presence there showed that it was possible to live together with the Jews," Habilio says. "Eliachar told me this on many occasions. So, on March 13, 1948, Salameh and his family left Jerusalem. They took with them very few possessions, got into their car and drove off. By the time Salameh left there were hardly any Arabs left in the neighborhood. He was one of the last to leave."
The Belgian consul in Jerusalem, Jan Nieuwenhuis, was also a friend of Salameh's. According to the documents in the possession of the present consul, Salameh made preparations to lease the villa to Nieuwenhuis. On February 7, 1948, the Belgian consul sent a letter to Salameh stating that he would lease the villa according to the rental agreement, though the amount to be paid was not stipulated. In fact, Salameh leased only part of the building to the Belgians; assuming that he would be able to return at a later stage, he stored his property in several rooms in the villa and locked them.
Nieuwenhuis's secretary was Esther Milikovksy, whose husband, Saadia Milikovsky, was the brother of Ben Zion Netanyahu, the father of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Habilio, who was a friend of Esther's, relates that she knew Salameh well. "Milikovsky told me that Salameh called her one day and said that he had heard that the Belgian consul was looking for a residence to lease. He suggested to her that he leave her the keys to the villa, as he believed he would be gone only a few weeks. Milikovsky told him she would be willing to be responsible for the house if the Belgian consul leased it as his residence. Salameh asked her to keep the matter secret, being afraid that Arabs would try to sabotage the plan. Milikovsky received the keys and an inventory of what the Salameh family had left behind in the villa. Salameh left and the Belgian consul moved in shortly afterward."
After Israel's establishment, Salameh understood that Eliachar had been right and that there was no way back. "And then Esther Milikovksy `showed her stuff,'" Habilio says. "She rolled up carpets and packed personal belongings and silver and sent whatever was possible to the Salameh family in Beirut via Rosh Hanikra with the Belgian observers in the United Nations force."
The years went by and Salameh continued to do business. According to Habilio, he involved Egypt's King Farouq in one of his projects, in return for which the king obtained Egyptian citizenship for Salameh. When Egyptian president Anwar Sadat paid his historic visit to Jerusalem, in November 1977, Habilio covered the event for French television. Habilio says that Sadat asked prime minister Menachem Begin to deal with the problems of an Egyptian citizen named Constantine Salameh, whose property had been impounded by Israel. "With his Polish courtesy, Begin promised to look into the matter," Habilio adds. However, former justice minister Moshe Nissim terms this story a "legend," and Yehiel Kadishai, who was then Begin's bureau chief, also does not recall any such request by Sadat.
Be that as it may, the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, which was signed in March 1979, did in fact change the perception of Salameh's status: He was no longer a Palestinian refugee but an Egyptian citizen with property in Israel. In 1982, his daughter, Mirelle, and her husband, who had dealings with Israeli businessman Mozi Wertheim, visited Israel. Wertheim introduced her to Ron Gazit, then a 30-year-old lawyer at the start of his career. Gazit recalls that Mirelle happened to mention that her father, Constantine Salameh, owned extensive property in Israel, though it had been seized by the state. She also noted that Aziz Shehadeh, a well-known Palestinian lawyer, had tried unsuccessfully to get her father's property restored to him.
What she did not tell Gazit, and perhaps did not know, was that Shehadeh had conducted protracted negotiations in the 1970s on behalf of her father to sell Villa Salameh to Belgium, which had been leasing the villa since 1948 for the residence of its consul-general in Jerusalem. But Gazit's curiosity had been piqued, especially after Wertheim told him that Mirelle's childhood home, Villa Salameh in Talbieh, had been a magnet for the children in the neighborhood, and that as a boy Wertheim had climbed the fence in order to catch a glimpse of the little zoo in the garden.
The law is the law
After visiting the villa, Gazit decided to go to Egypt in order to meet with the owner. With the knowledge of the Salameh family, Gazit arrived in Alexandria. There he made his way to a villa that was no less impressive than the one in Jerusalem - all marble and ringed with flowers - where Salameh resided.
"He was then about 95 but turned out to be a brilliant man with a sharp intellect, impressive and noble in bearing," Gazit says. "I remember his clear eyes and his solid frame. His manners were a mix of Western and Oriental." It took a few hours for Salameh's suspicions to abate, following which he told his Israeli guest about his impounded property in Israel and emphasized that he had left Jerusalem in 1948 in good faith - not because of the war but because of his many business interests in Egypt. He added that whenever he had gone abroad for a few months at a stretch he used to leave the villa in the hands of his friend, the Belgian consul Jan Nieuwenhuis.
Salameh went on to say that he had been unable to return to Jerusalem because of the hostilities and that after Israel's establishment he was categorized as an "absentee" and his property was impounded by the state. Gazit had Salameh sign an affidavit to this effect in English, and Salameh's Egyptian partner, Rafi Nasar Aboussouan, affirmed that Salameh had arrived in Egypt in 1948 to deal with their joint cotton business and for no other reason. Neither of them mentioned that Aboussouan was also a relative of Constantine Salameh's on his wife's side.
Gazit: "Salameh decided I would receive a fee. I was a young lawyer and he didn't believe I would be able to get his property back. It was only in our second meeting that he offered me a percentage if I was successful in that."
Back in Israel, Gazit had three land registry experts excavate the records for three months, until they came back to Gazit with a lengthy list of Salameh's assets in the country, including land in Jerusalem's Ein Karem neighborhood and in Jaffa, about 20 apartments and five houses in Jerusalem, tennis courts, partnership in a Haifa hotel and much more.
Gazit: "The Absentees' Assets Law of 1951 states that an absentee is a person whose property passes to the possession of the Custodian of Absentees' property if between November 29, 1947, and May 19, 1948 he was the legal owner of an asset in Israeli territory and was a Palestine citizen who left his normal place of residence and entered an enemy state. But article 27(a) of the law states that if the Custodian believes that an absentee left his place of residence not because of military activity or fear of them, he is entitled to issue a written affirmation stating that the person in question is not an absentee and is entitled to receive his assets."
Based on the affidavits he organized in Egypt, Gazit was convinced that Salameh did not leave the country because of his fear of the war, but solely to pursue his business interests. "I asked the Custodian to affirm that Salameh was not an absentee. The true significance of this was that he would theoretically be able to get back his vast property, which would have set me up nicely in life," Gazit relates. "I waited two or three months, sent reminders, phoned, but there was no response.
"After I threatened to go to the High Court of Justice, I received a letter from Plia Albeck, who was then the director of the Civil Department in the State Prosecutor's Office. In her curt reply she noted that my request obligated extensive clarifications, as `It raises the general question of citizens of Egypt.' She also added an interesting sentence: `By the way, do either you or your client know what the Egyptian law is regarding the property of Jews who immigrated from Egypt to Israel?' I was joyful when I read the letter, because the law is the law, and the law says nothing about mutuality."
Meeting in Cyprus
Gazit returned to Alexandria and told Salameh that he was considering the possibility of applying in his name to the High Court of Justice. Salameh, who was well-versed in Israeli law, gave his approval. "I found a precedent of a Palestinian whose property the state released," Gazit says. That Palestinian was represented by attorney Chaim Herzog, later Israel's president. "I met with Herzog and he encouraged me to follow up the Salameh case. Throughout, I did not ask the state for compensation for the property, but for the return of all of Salameh's assets - that is, ownership. When I told Salameh that he might have to take the stand in an Israeli court and be cross-examined, he said, `At my age I don't fly much, but I will come by taxi from Alexandria to Jerusalem."
Gazit submitted the petition to the High Court of Justice on July 11, 1982. He was then invited to a meeting with the justice minister, Moshe Nissim, which was also attended by the attorney general, Yitzhak Zamir (later a Supreme Court justice), Plia Albeck and others. "I had the feeling that they were preaching to me - how could I, as an Israeli Zionist, represent a case like this. Then someone - I don't remember who - suggested that the state consider purchasing Villa Salameh, in return for which Constantine Salameh would forgo all his properties and assets in Israel. That possibility was also raised in the State Prosecutor's Office: that the property be registered in Salameh's name and in return he would forgo claim to all his assets."
Already then, Gazit says, he had the feeling that the government was thinking about how much the properties were worth and "sweating with the thought of the money." In March 1983, the possibility was raised that David Sofer, a businessman, and the Avraham Sofer-Schreiber charitable organization, would purchase the villa as a kind of budgetary solution to the state's financial crunch.
Jerusalem-born David Sofer, 61, is the sixth child of Rabbi (and professor) Avraham Sofer-Schreiber, a well-known scholar of Jewish studies and an Israel Prize laureate for Torah literature in 1981. David Sofer began his business career in insurance and then moved to private aviation and cloud seeding. In 1972, he identified on the Tel Aviv Stick Exchange a dormant company, Jordan Investigations, which was founded in 1944, bought most of its shares and renamed it Jordan Investments. The new company, which he controlled, dealt in real estate in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and London, in fueling services for ships abroad and in stock investments. The economic columns of the time acclaimed him as the star of the stock exchange in the 1980s.
Sofer, who lives in London, is secretive and does not give interviews. This week, his solicitor in London said that Sofer was away on a cruise in the Caribbean.
In 1987, he was suspected of trading illegally in shares in New York; in 1995 he settled with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, paying a fine of $2.7 million and promising to cooperate in SEC investigations. In return, the case against him was dropped and no charges were filed.
However, in 1983, Sofer was at the peak of his success. It was apparently Gazit, who had business ties with him concerning Jordan Investments, who told him about Villa Salameh. Senior officials in the Justice Ministry said this week that Gazit brought Sofer - who was represented by attorney Shmuel Barzel - into the transaction. Gazit, for his part, recalls that Sofer "suggested that he make things easier for us by financing the deal." Gazit also emphasizes that he never received a fee from Sofer. "I represented Salameh only. Sofer was a type of budgetary solution, I am convinced that from the legal point of view, Sofer could not have purchased the property before it was released."
In 1983, the state decided to pay Salameh general compensation for the property according to its worth as determined by an assessor, and Gazit proposed to the state authorities that the Sofer charitable institution underwrite the transaction. The state offered Salameh $700,000 for the villa in return for his renunciation of all claim to his assets in Israel and the territories.
Gazit, who was persuaded that this was a fair deal, went to Alexandria one more time. "Fair, because I knew that the court would look for every possible way not to let me win the trial," he explains. "The implications of a court victory are formidable, in the light of the fact that about half the area of the country is Palestinian territory that was seized."
Gazit recommended to Salameh that he accept the proposed deal. Salameh replied that as he was already old, he would leave the decision to his children. He suggested that Gazit meet with the two older children, Charles and Rene. That meeting took place in a hotel in Larnaca, Cyprus, on March 29, 1983.
The two, who had come from Beirut, met Gazit in the lobby of the hotel, looking nervous. They had good reason: It was just a few months after the massacre in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut and the Israeli army still controlled extensive areas of Lebanon - hardly an auspicious moment to meet with an Israeli lawyer in order to discuss a transaction with the Israeli government involving property dating from the Palestine period.
"I suggested that we order coffee and they said it would be better if we had it in one of their rooms rather than the lobby," Gazit relates. "They looked worried and suspected that they were being followed. The conversation, though, was businesslike. They said the offer was unsatisfactory, given the huge assets of the family in Israel. I explained to them that in my opinion I had gone as far as I could and that it was clear that the High Court would throw out the case rather than set a precedent. I told them that this was the amount the state was offering and that they had the option of remaining with the principle but without the property. They named a higher amount. It was obvious that they looked askance at me, as though I were the representative of the government.
"I explained that I had already invested a large amount of money and time in the case and was not receiving a fee for my efforts, so I was not about to start conducting negotiations anew. `Take it or leave it,' I told them, and said I was dropping the case and would not supply them with any legal material. We parted with a cool handshake and I went to the airport with a heavy heart. A few minutes later I saw them in the airport. They said they accepted the offer and they okayed an agreement."
The agreement between the State of Israel and Constantine Salameh was signed on December 2, 1983.
Within a few days, the Israeli Finance Ministry transferred $700,000 to Salameh's bank account in Frankfurt. On December 10, Salameh sent Gazit an emotional letter in which he thanked him for the successful outcome.
"As I see it, the Salameh case is not such an astounding precedent," Moshe Nissim, the former justice minister, says. "The man sought to appeal his status as an absentee and a discussion began about his case. We reached the conclusion that instead of being in a situation in which all the property would be registered in his name, it would be worth the state's while to purchase Salameh's vast property - which already then was worth millions of dollars - for a pittance."