Interior Minister Eli Yishai apologized to US Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday for the announcement of a plan to build 1,600 housing units in the northeastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo.
Yishai did not call the vice president directly but he passed along a message that he regretted the timing of the announcement, which was not discussed with him or with other senior ministry officials. He said he was unaware that a planning committee in Jerusalem would be discussing the matter during Biden’s visit and that had he had known about the matter, he would have recommended that the announcement be delayed.
“The approval was a purely technical matter and we had no intention of insulting or seeking a confrontation with the US vice president,” Yishai said in radio interviews.
“We [Israelis] tend to blame ourselves too much for things done innocently.” However, the minister said that he did not plan to cancel the building plan, because the government’s construction freeze in the territories did not apply to Jerusalem.
Politicians on the Left slammed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for allowing the announcement to happen. They said it showed he was not really in charge of his ministers or his government.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak downplayed the decision on Tuesday night, saying that it was not new and that Ramat Shlomo was very close to the Green Line. But after receiving a phone call from an angry Labor minister, he changed his tune and released a statement condemning the plan early Wednesday morning.
The statement from Barak’s office said the timing of the announcement was “damaging” to negotiations with the Palestinians, which it called "a vital Israeli interest.”
The statement added that Israel had acted for many months to build trust between the two sides in order to launch negotiations, and that “our practical steps should take this into consideration.”
Barak’s spokesman denied that he had changed his mind.
At Wednesday’s security cabinet meeting Barak and other Labor ministers asked Netanyahu for an explanation. Social Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog said in interviews that the announcement was a “big error in government bureaucracy that should never have happened.” Politicians on the Right defended the move. National Infrastructures Minister Uzi Landau (Israel Beiteinu) accused the US of discrimination and said that Biden had to respect that Israelis elected a government that unlike the previous one intended to keep all of Jerusalem.
"We need to act with Jerusalem the way Britain acts with London and the US with Washington,” Landau said. “We don’t need to ask permission for anything in our capital. By condemning Israel’s plans to build in Ramat Shlomo, the US is creating an impression as if it is prejudging the outcome of the negotiations. Jews, like Arabs, have a right to build in Jerusalem.”
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin emphasized Israel’s right to build throughout Jerusalem, saying, “This is a matter on which Israeli governments and American administrations have held opposing positions since 1967.” Rivlin, a Jerusalem resident, noted that the US had even opposed the construction of Gilo, Ramat Eshkol, Ramot, Neveh Yaakov, saying that those were all neighborhoods “about which there has been a consensus among Zionist parties, and no government has even considered not building in them.”
Kadima and Meretz filed no-confidence motions over the announcement.
Kadima said the announcement “set a new record for diplomatic stupidity.
“[Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu has no control over his government, and without leadership, every minister does what he wants,” the party said in a statement. “Netanyahu’s games of political survival are damaging Israel’s vital interests, and when even the defense minister criticizes his government, it’s now official – Israel doesn’t have a prime minister and the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing.”
Kadima faction chairwoman Dalia Itzik hinted that the announcement showed it was time for Netanyahu to replace certain elements in his government with her party.
She said the timing of the move was “further proof” that Netanyahu must
change his government that “always has another surprise in store,” for
a government that “can advance the peace process.”
Meretz said its no-confidence-motion would focus on the “massive
construction in east Jerusalem,” and over what it termed the
“pyromaniac polices of the Netanyahu government.”
In a statement, Meretz chairman Haim Oron said that “with its own
hands, the government is turning its declared desire to resume the
peace process into a sad and dangerous joke.” Oron added that,
“Attempts by cabinet ministers to cling to procedural failures and say
that there were errors in timing and the approval process only serve to
make the embarrassment worse. The problem is in the essence not the