April 26, 2010 - 12:00am

Two Jerusalem officials said on Monday that Israel has frozen new construction in the city's disputed eastern sector - despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's declarations to the contrary.

Two weeks ago Haaretz reported that recent tensions with the United States had brought about a de facto construction freeze, with building projects requiring approval from Jerusalem's district planning committee on hold for more than a month.

On Monday Jerusalem Councilman Meir Margalit of the dovish Meretz Party said top Jerusalem officials intimately involved with construction projects told him Netanyahu's office ordered a freeze after Israel infuriated Washington last month by announcing a major new East Jerusalem housing development during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

Another councilman, Meir Turujamen, who sits on the Interior Ministry committee that approves building plans, said his panel has not met since the Biden visit, after previously meeting once weekly.

"I wrote a letter about three weeks or a month ago asking [Interior Minister Eli] Yishai why the committee isn't convening," he said. "To this day I haven't received an answer."

Turujamen added that the last time his committee met was to approve the 1,600-apartment Ramat Shlomo project that riled the Americans.

He said he received no official word of a de facto freeze order, but based on the situation, those are the facts.

"We used to meet once a week, and now for several months we haven't met. It's clear there's an order," Turjeman said.

"A separate municipal planning committee, which answers to the city, has only met once - last week, giving preliminary approval to a synagogue and kindergarten in a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem," he said.

An engineer who oversees residential construction in a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem said requests for proposals to build hundreds of apartments haven't gone out. "I think it's related to the political situation," he said, adding that he knew of no official order to block construction.

The engineer spoke on condition of anonymity because he does business with the city and speaking out on this issue might risk putting that in jeopardy.

Asked about Margalit's claim that a freeze order was in effect, government spokesman Mark Regev replied: "Following the Biden visit and the mishap, the prime minister asked that a mechanism be put in place to prevent a recurrence of this kind of debacle."

He would not elaborate, and stopped short of saying Netanyahu had ordered a freeze.

Efrat Orbach, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, said this mechanism explained why planning committee meetings were being delayed, because now multiple ministries had to be involved in the coordination.

"There is no freeze, there is bureaucracy," Orbach said


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