Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, working in coordination with the Jerusalem Municipality, approved on Tuesday 454 Jewish-owned housing units in the capital’s contested Ramot Shlomo neighborhood, located beyond the 1949 Armistice (Green) Line.
The move, which sets the stage for 1,000 additional homes to be built there, follows a two year de facto freeze following a diplomatic row with the United States.
Netanyahu gave the go-ahead to market 436 homes in Ramot Shlomo and another 18 in Ramot, according to a government official who asked not to be identified.
Another government official said building in the two Jerusalem neighborhoods in no way impacts the possibility of eventually reaching an agreement with the Palestinians.
“Anyone who has been to Ramot Shlomo knows that in any possible peace agreement, even peace plans put forward by the Palestinians, this neighborhood will stay a part of Israel, and in no way does this [construction] hinder the possibility of moving forward in peace,” the official said.
The official added that the move was merely the implementation of a decision made in 2012.
After the municipality’s Local Committee on Planning and Building canceled a meeting to approve the project two weeks ago, numerous reports surfaced claiming that a new construction freeze order had been applied unilaterally to Palestinian and Jewish homes.
At the time, Netanyahu was in the United States to meet with President Barack Obama in an effort to repair badly frayed ties after Netanyahu’s vociferous condemnation of the Iran nuclear deal.
An official would not confirm reports that the decision was delayed, so as not to cast a pall on Netanyahu’s visit to Washington.
Despite the reports, the municipality claimed that construction would continue unabated throughout the capital, and Netanyahu approved the move soon after his return.
Although the Prime Minister’s Office is theoretically not involved in construction decisions of the local level, after the brouhaha when US Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel in 2010, a mechanism was put into play whereby the prime minister would have to sign off on building issues beyond the Green Line.
During Biden’s visit, the Municipality’s Finance Committee made an initial announcement granting funding for the project, leading to a protracted diplomatic crisis with Washington.
At the time, the plan was also condemned by governments and organizations around the world as a destabilizing factor for peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. To ease tensions at the time, Netanyahu told Washington that construction in Ramot Shlomo would not begin for at least two years.
When the Interior Ministry’s Jerusalem District Planning and Construction Committee ratified the plan in June 2012, city councilman Yair Gabai, a member of the panel, praised the project as “the first in a series of essential developments that will add to the prosperity of Jerusalem, help curb emigration from the capital, and strengthen Israeli sovereignty in all parts of the city.”
At the same time, Hassan Abu Libdeh, the Palestinian Authority’s minister of national economy, denounced the move, calling it a “resumption of settlement activity.”
When the NIS 62.4 million infrastructure budget for the neighborhood was finally approved in 2013, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor and Finance Committee head David Hadari lauded the funding, deeming it “Jerusalem’s vaccination shot against those who think about dividing it somehow.”
In a 2013 statement, the Jerusalem Municipality noted there had been no changes in its construction policy over the past four decades, adding that it would continue to “build in all of the city’s neighborhoods according to statutory plans” for both Jews and Arabs.
On Tuesday morning, Meir Turgeman, chairman of Jerusalem’s Local Committee for Planning and Building, told Army Radio that he was working behind the scenes to garner approval for the additional 1,000 units.
“I decided to appeal to all parties in the Housing Ministry and the Israel Lands Administration to ask for another 1,000 housing units for development,” Turgeman said.
In a joint statement, MKs Yoav Kisch (Likud) and Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi) lauded Tuesday’s approval as a positive harbinger of things to come in the capital.
“We believe that this is the beginning of a change in government policy regarding the rights to build in the land of our forefathers,” they wrote.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki condemned the plan, saying he’d file a complaint with the International Criminal Court.
“We don’t only condemn settlement building which is illegal and carried out by the Israeli occupation authority through systematic settlement building, we also submit complaints to the parties concerned,” said Maliki. “Now we have added a new aspect to the parties we deal with, which is the International Criminal Court.
“We will follow-up with the office of the general prosecutor on this new escalation in settlement building. We are also working on documenting and sending what is required regarding the latest developments and Israeli escalation, which affects the land and the Palestinian people in various ways.”
MK Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union) dismissed the announcement as a cynical and exploitative attempt by Netanyahu to avert international condemnation while the world is preoccupied with the terrorist attacks in Paris.
“As always, [Netanyahu] uses cynicism... to pass the housing units under the radar,” he said in a statement. “Why thaw the construction in Ramot Shlomo? Because all the world powers are too busy with the murderous attacks in France to pay attention and denounce the move.”
Bar-Lev contended that Netanyahu’s pledge to renew peace talks with the PA was hollow.
“A few days after declaring to Obama that he is interested in the existence of unilateral steps, we learn exactly which type of action he meant,” he added.
Herb Keinon and Reuters contributed to this report.