Who Is Behind the Shady Jaffa Gate Deal?

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.