December 20, 2007 - 4:56pm

We shouldn't envy those who are building the future of Jerusalem. The secular people may be leaving the city, but it is growing by leaps and bounds - though it is not easy to find a place to build. The city cannot develop to the east, in the area known as E1, because of clear-cut pledges to the Americans not to create territorial contiguity between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim. It cannot expand westward because the Safdie plan has been shelved. A real problem.

The ultra-Orthodox are particularly feeling the pinch. Their natural growth rate is great, therefore so is their demand for housing. The rising housing prices in Jerusalem are pushing many of the ultra-Orthodox toward ultra-Orthodox satellite towns like Betar Illit and Modi'in Illit. New neighborhoods should be built to keep the ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem. It is no coincidence that the main supporters of the construction of new neighborhoods are ultra-Orthodox politicians like MK Meir Porush and Jerusalem's deputy mayor, Yehoshua Pollack.

However the housing pinch is being taken advantage of for other purposes entirely, with the initiative of the Housing Ministry to receive "permission to plan" in the Atarot area being a prime example.


Although it is only a preliminary stage, the intention seems quite clear. Senior officials in the ministry over the past few months have already presented a "theoretical plan," albeit by a private architectural firm, that talks about the construction of 10,000 housing units in the Qalandia-Atarot area. For comparison's sake, Gilo has less than 9,000 units.

The construction of a neighborhood of this size has clear political ramifications. It will make it very difficult to implement any arrangement to divide Jerusalem between Israel and the future Palestinian state.

The Clinton plan speaks of the Jewish neighborhoods remaining in Jewish hands and the Arab neighborhoods coming under the aegis of the Palestinian state. Such a huge neighborhood, which would divide the Palestinian neighborhoods in northern Jerusalem from Ramallah, would make the Clinton plan impossible to implement. The Ramon plan, which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert signaled that he accepts, speaks of a similar plan.

The question of Jerusalem is an essential one for the future of any arrangement with the Palestinians. Without an acceptable arrangement in Jerusalem, Mahmoud Abbas cannot sign an agreement even if he wants to. The Arab and the Muslim world will not let him.

The feeling is that officials on the Israeli side who understand this sensitivity see in it the potential to undermine any arrangement with the Palestinians by creating a new controversy in Jerusalem.

The assumption of these officials seems to be that most Israelis view construction in Jerusalem as a natural thing, while for Palestinians it could be a reason to break off the negotiations. Even if additional housing is needed, solutions should be found by building more densely and higher, as accepted in cities elsewhere in the world.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017