Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel pledged to continue building in east Jerusalem and West Bank settlements on Sunday evening as he laid the cornerstone of a 63-unit Jewish housing project in East Talpiot, over the pre-1967 lines.
“We will continue to build, so it is clear this is just the start. This tune can’t be stopped,” Ariel (Bayit Yehudi) said. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Bayit Yehudi party have repeatedly made this pledge, Ariel said.
The ceremony followed an announcement earlier in the day that his office, along with the Israel Lands Authority, intends to publish tenders for 1,187 new Jewish homes over the pre-1967 lines.
The announcement comes in advance of the anticipated release of 26 Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands, who have been jailed for over two decades.
Both steps are a prelude to the second round of direct peace talks, which will be held in Jerusalem on August 14 between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
According to the ministry, 793 of the new homes will be in Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. It includes 400 new units in Gilo, 210 in Har Homa and 183 in Pisgat Ze’ev.
In addition it plans to publish tenders for 394 new homes in West Bank settlement blocs that Israeli believes it will retain in any final status agreement with the Palestinians.
This includes 117 new homes in Ariel, 149 in Efrat, 92 in Ma’aleh Adumim and 36 in Betar Illit.
The Palestinians have insisted that Israel must halt all West Bank settlement activity and Jewish building over the pre-1967 lines. Israel has refused to cede to this request.
It was understood that settlement activity would continue when a new nine-month negotiating period was announced at the end of July.
It was expected that Israel would time its announcement of new housing to coincide with the release of Palestinian prisoners.
Israel agreed last month in principle to release a total 104 of prisoners during the nine months of negotiations as a gesture to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Ariel said the new units would help bring down the cost of housing and that he did not accept any limitations on where new building could take place.
“No country in the world would allow someone else to dictate where it can and where it cannot build,” he said.
“We will continue to market homes and to build everywhere in Israel – in the Negev, in the Galilee and in the center of the country, to answer the housing needs of Israel’s citizens. This is the right thing to do for Zionist and economic reasons.”
He said that his ministry can and must market thousands of homes in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) was among many politicians in the Center and on the Left that attacked the decision to publish tenders as a double mistake.
The issue of affordable housing should not be mixed up with the peace process, he said.
Uri Ariel said in response that Yesh Atid supported building beyond the pre-1967 line and noted that its opening conference was in the Ariel settlement.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) did not comment on the matter.
Labor Party head Shelly Yacimovich called on Netanyahu, Lapid and Livni to halt the publication of the tenders.
“Netanyahu has to decide which government he heads: one that will pursue a political agreement [with the Palestinians] or a government that seeks to prevent any possibility of such an agreement,” Yacimovich said. “Minister Uri Ariel’s announcement is a a ‘poke in the eye’ to the US, Europe, the Palestinians and the vast majority of Israeli citizens who seek peace,” she said.
Meretz Party head MK Zehava Gal-On said the decision was the equivalent of planting a roadside bomb next to the peace process even before it started.
“As long as building continues, there won't be an agreement with the Palestinians,” she said.
Gal-On explained that any final status solution would be based on the pre-1967 lines, with land swaps and a divided Jerusalem.
The new southeast Jerusalem project will be constructed near Jebl Mukaber, an Arab community. The 63 housing units will connect Jebl Mukaber to the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of East Talpiot.
According to records, the residential units were sold over five years ago. However, with the exception of the creation of an underground parking garage, the construction permit for the remainder of the neighborhood was postponed due to “political pressure.”
The Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee put the highly anticipated construction on hold, despite the plan already having been approved.
In an official statement Sunday, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat lauded Uri Ariel’s decision to support the construction of the new housing units.
“New construction in Jerusalem is essential to the development and strengthening of the city, and for allowing young people to live here and be able to afford to buy apartments,” said Barkat in the statement.
“I am glad that we and the government of Israel see eye to eye on this important need.”
Barkat continued, “We must continue to accelerate the building of more housing units throughout the city – and all sectors – in the coming years more and more, along with continued economic, cultural and educational development.”
The new neighborhood will not be the only Jewish community abutting Jebl Mukaber. Indeed, Nof Zion, a gated apartment complex housing Jews, is also adjacent to the largely Arab community.Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.