Abe Selig
The Jerusalem Post
April 26, 2010 - 12:00am

The government has imposed a de facto freeze on new Jewish construction projects in east Jerusalem despite Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s public insistence to the contrary, Jerusalem Municipality officials said on Monday.

While whether the slowdown actually constitutes a moratorium, or how long it will last, remains unclear, the apparent freeze likely reflects Netanyahu’s need to mend the current rift with the US regarding construction over the Green Line, on lands the Palestinians claim for a future state, and to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

A government official claimed a weeks-long delay in reviewing plans for new construction was a bureaucratic issue and not evidence of a freeze. But the fact that new plans are not going ahead dovetails with signs that the Palestinians might ease their demand that the contentious construction stop before they resume peace talks.

Jerusalem Councilman Meir Margalit of the left-wing Meretz Party said top Jerusalem officials intimately involved with construction projects had told him that Netanyahu’s office ordered a freeze after the approval of 1,600 new housing units in the north Jerusalem Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, which is located over the Green Line, was announced during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden last month, sparking a diplomatic row with Washington.

“The government ordered the Interior Ministry immediately after the Biden incident to not even talk about new construction for Jewish homes in east Jerusalem,” Margalit said. “It’s not just that building has stopped: The committees that deal with this are not even meeting anymore.”

He asked not to identify the officials who informed him of the order because they had not approved the disclosure of their names. Other councilmen, however, on Monday countered Margalit’s claims, painting a more complex picture with regard to construction in the capital.

City Council members Elisha Peleg and David Hadari both rejected even the notion of a construction freeze anywhere in the city, and told The Jerusalem Post that the local planning committee, which is under the auspices of the Jerusalem Municipality, was conducting “business as usual.”

“There is no freeze on construction in east Jerusalem,” Peleg told the Post. “The local planning committee is still meeting, and while I can’t talk about the district committee [which is under the aegis of the Interior Ministry], the local committee has been approving projects – not big projects, as of late, but it’s business as usual.”

“We recently authorized requests for [small] projects in [the over-the-Green Line neighborhoods of] Jebl Mukaber, Ramot, Pisgat Ze’ev, French Hill,East Talpiot and others,” Peleg said.

As far as receiving any orders from the Prime Minister’s Office to freeze, or even to slow down such projects, Peleg added, “I know that the Prime Minister’s Office is now in contact with [municipality officials] regarding such plans, but that’s not new – we’re continuing to plan, and we’re continuing to build in all parts of the capital, including in east Jerusalem.”

Still, another councilman, Meir Turgeman, who sits on the district committee, said his panel had 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.”

Turgeman 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 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.”

Turgeman added that since Biden’s visit, the local committee had only met once – last week, giving preliminary approval to a synagogue and kindergarten in Gilo and Pisgat Ze’ev, respectively.

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.

Clearing up the apparent discrepancy between the various accounts, Yakir Segev, who controls the east Jerusalem portfolio at City Hall, told the Post on Monday that there was in fact a de facto freeze on construction projects in east Jerusalem – where the government could freeze them.

“De facto freeze? It’s correct,” Segev said. “This is nothing new, it’s been known for awhile. The government isn’t advancing [construction projects] that might present [diplomatic] harm with the US. That’s the situation.”

“It’s not a direct order that has been given openly, but rather a feeling or an atmosphere, in which it is known that large projects that might cause diplomatic problems are not being advanced right now,” Segev explained. However, he stressed, the government doesn’t have the final say on all potentialconstruction projects in east Jerusalem.

“There are things that the government can decide, like in [state-owned lands such as] Pisgat Ze’ev. However, there could still be movement in the local planning council of the Jerusalem Municipality with regards to privately-owned land,” he said.

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 was the explanation for the delayed committee meetings – now, multiple ministries had to be involved in the coordination.

“There is no freeze, there is bureaucracy,” Orbach said.


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