Drastic fall in e. J'lem home approvals

Municipality: Any talk of a freeze is baseless.

By MELANIE LIDMAN
August 27, 2010 01:51
Ramat Shlomo construction.

Ramat Shlomo construction 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

The approval process for new Jewish homes in east Jerusalem has slowed dramatically since March’s diplomatic crisis during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit, according to data made available to The Jerusalem Post by Ir Amim and Peace Now. But several Israeli officials denied any deliberate slowdown.

In the five months since Biden’s visit, only a handful of small projects, with a total of 433 housing units, have passed some level of approval. In the three months before Biden’s visit, five large projects, with more than 3,171 housing units, passed some level of approval. Data from previous years were unavailable.

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Some officials, notably including Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, say the slowdown in approvals means there is a de facto freeze in east Jerusalem due to international pressure.

Lieberman said on Wednesday that plans to develop 1,600 housing units in various east Jerusalem neighborhoods should be taken up again immediately after the 10-month West Bank settlement moratorium ends on September 26.

But a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry said the slowdown could be due to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s “increased mechanisms” for oversight of the Interior Ministry’s approval committees following the Ramat Shlomo affair, or simply to routine bureaucracy and other normal fluctuations.

“After Clinton and Biden, they hardly approved any construction in east Jerusalem,” city council member Meir Margalit (Meretz) said, referring to the US secretary of state’s blistering criticism of Israeli building policies over the Green Line at the height of the Ramat Shlomo dispute five months ago. “The Americans didn’t ask us to stop building, they asked us to stop approving buildings.”

“The thing about the freeze in Judea and Samaria, even if I don’t agree with it, is it’s a cabinet decision,” said Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein (Likud), who is on an Interior Ministry committee that deals with construction approvals.

“With Jerusalem, it’s all de facto, and that’s why it’s also hard to fight against it.”

In contacts with the Post this week, the municipality, the Interior Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office all denied there was any kind of a freeze in east Jerusalem, either on the approval process or construction itself.

“Any hint at a freeze of construction is baseless,” said Stephan Miller, a spokesman for Mayor Nir Barkat.

“It’s just coincidence,” Interior Ministry spokeswoman Efrat Orbach said, when asked about the slowdown in the approval rate. “Sometimes it goes very quickly and sometimes it doesn’t...

It doesn’t have any connection to anything.”

Between January and March of this year, 3,171 housing units passed different points of approval, according to data collected by Ir Amim, a Jerusalem non-profit advocating for a two-state solution, and the activist group Peace Now. This 3,171 figure included 549 units in the Givat Hamatos neighborhood, 320 in Ramot, 600 in Pisgat Ze’ev, 102 in Gilo, and the 1,600 units in Ramat Shlomo.

Since Biden’s visit in March, the groups said, only 433 units have passed various hurdles. They are mostly smaller projects from private companies, and two are in the “Holy Basin” a 6-sq.km. area to the east of the Old City. They include 20 units in Sheikh Jarrah at the Shepherd Hotel, 24 units at the Beit Orot Yeshiva in ATur, two projects in Pisgat Ze’ev for 48 and 32 units, respectively, (part of a 600-unit block approved earlier), and the largest, 309 units in Neveh Ya’acov.

These estimates do not include Barkat’s Gan Hamelech plan in Silwan because that plan calls for a park rather than housing units.

Left-wing organizations with an interest in this type of data struggle to keep track of it by relying on giant, detailed spreadsheets that they fill out by as the news of approvals unfolds.

The municipality, by contrast, has a separate file for each plan. It does not keep data that differentiates between construction in the eastern and western parts of the capital, making it difficult to determine whether the east Jerusalem slowdown is linked to diplomacy concerns, or simply part of a general slowdown in construction approvals.

The Biden-Ramat Shlomo dispute erupted on March 9, when the Jerusalem District Building and Planning Committee agreed to allow a 1,600-unit housing project in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood to be submitted for review, giving it the first of three stamps of approval needed to move on to the next stage. An Interior Ministry announcement to this effect took Netanyahu by surprise, and was widely condemned around the world.

After the announcement, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas pulled out of indirect “proximity” talks with Israel, which he had agreed to just days earlier.

“Nobody made a fuss [in previous years]... The fuss [in March] was because some people made a panic out of this, to my sorrow,” Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) said in a recent interview with the Post. “Even the Americans understand that it was a routine decision. What happened was unfortunate.”

Yishai detailed the steps that had been taken to avoid a repeat of the row.

“Netanyahu committed that when there is a visit [by a US VIP], we’ll do nothing to create unnecessary tensions,” he said.

“Ramat Shlomo came as a surprise to us, so the prime minister asked the cabinet secretariat to create mechanisms to make sure that no one would be surprised by decisions by a lowerlevel body and decisions that have implications on national security,” explained an official from the Prime Minister’s Office, who asked not to be named.

The official would not elaborate on the mechanisms put in place, though Orbach said that now the agenda for each planning meeting must be passed to a new committee and relevant ministers before each meeting.

“From a legal point of view, planning and zoning in Jerusalem is the same as in Ramat Gan or Hadera,” the official added. “The central government has nothing to do with it. But because Jerusalem is, in the eyes of the international community, a special case, we wanted to make sure that we weren’t surprised the way we were so publicly after the Biden thing.”

The Ramat Shlomo project, like many other major construction projects over the Green Line, is now languishing in bureaucracy. After receiving that first approval from the district planning committee on March 9, the contractors are now required to publish their plans in three local newspapers and start a 60-day period for public comment before they can move on to the next stage of approval.

But no such announcements have been published, meaning the buildings won’t move forward.

“It’s in progress,” said Pinhas Shnur, the head of Ramat Shlomo’s Infrastructures Committee. “Every project, whether it’s in Tel Aviv or whether it’s here, takes years.”

He added, however, that there was an upside to being in the middle of a worldwide scandal.

“It was great publicity,” Shnur said.

The main source of the slowdown in approvals is the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee, one of six district committees under the auspices of the Interior Ministry.

After March’s crisis, the committee did not meet for two months, ostensibly to give the Prime Minister’s Office time to comb its upcoming agendas for Ramat Shlomo-style surprises.

The Interior Ministry spokeswoman said that the committee usually meets once or twice a month, and the hiatus was due to Pessah rather than political pressure.

“There’s definitely something going on, because we’re not seeing enough building,” said city council member David Hershkovitz (Israel Beiteinu), who has served on the Jerusalem Local Planning and Building Committee for two years.

“We don’t need to stand up and yell, ‘We’re building here!’ for every building like a protest. But we need to keep building, of course,” he said.

Most of the uproar about specific construction projects is deliberate provocation, said Deputy Mayor Kobi Kahlon, the head of the local planning and building committee.

“Some people say, let’s make a big deal here to save somewhere else, let’s embarrass here in order to do something else,” he said.

Kahlon also denied there was a freeze in east Jerusalem construction approvals, insisting that the municipality’s planning committee is separate from the Interior Ministry and not affected by pressure from the government.

East Jerusalem construction tends to make the news almost weekly, despite the de facto freeze or significant slowdown, because the media reports on every approval of each step of the long process. But the approval process is so long and convoluted that it requires dozens of stamps of approval over a period of years, sometimes stretching for more than a decade between when a project is first submitted and when construction begins.

The media frenzy, strengthened after Biden’s visit, makes it confusing for those who try to pinpoint how close various projects are to digging a foundation.

To apply for a building permit at the municipality, the owner must submit proof of ownership to the Israel Lands Administration, unless the land is already owned by the state, as in the case for most of the large projects.

The contractors then submit the plan to the Jerusalem Local Planning and Building Committee, the municipal body, and, if the plan passes, it moves onto the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee, which is a part of the Interior Ministry.

The district committee meets at least three times on each project – to agree that the project can be submitted for review, to hear public objections, and to approve the project. The Ramat Shlomo project made headlines in March after the first meeting of the district committee, when it was approved for deposit, or public review.

If approved after the three meetings, the contractors must open the project up again to public comment, and if no objections are raised, the project goes back to the municipality to get a construction permit. If objections are raised, the district committee decides on them.

The municipality then checks the infrastructure and engineering, which usually involves a lot of back-and-forth haggling. If the city decides too many changes have been made to the original plan, the contractors may have to go through the process with the district committee all over again.

Before work can begin, the entire project is checked one last time by a subcommittee of the municipality’s local planning and building committee.


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