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(photo credit: Courtesy)
In an unusual show of bipartisan unity, 50 MKs from across the political spectrum have joined forces to oppose a building plan up for final approval next month that would expand Jerusalem westward.
The plan, named for internationally renowned architect Moshe Safdie, who drafted the original version, would see the construction of 20,000 housing units on more than 26 square kilometers of natural woodlands and forests to the west of the capital, in one of Israel's largest-ever construction projects.
Report argues that Safdie Plan is unnecessary
The proposal, which has been on the drawing boards for much of the last decade and has the backing of the Jerusalem municipality, is awaiting final approval by the Interior Ministry's National Planning and Building Committee.
The committee is set to take up the issue on October 17, after putting off a final decision last year.
"The plan will cause irreparable damage, and is an urban death sentence to the city of Jerusalem," said Naomi Tsur, the director of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, at a public symposium on the issue organized by environmental groups in Jerusalem Tuesday evening.
The symposium was boycotted by proponents of the building plan.
Opponents of the plan will set up a protest tent outside the Interior Ministry offices near the government compound in Jerusalem Wednesday. They plan to maintain the tent protest until the October 17 committee meeting.
"We have to understand that we are talking about territory that is the biggest and last lung for all of central Israel and not just the residents of Jerusalem," said MK Rabbi Michael Melchior (Labor-Meimad), who heads the Knesset's environmental lobby.
"This plan will destroy not just the hills around Jerusalem but the city itself," said MK Colette Avital (Labor), who heads the parliament's Jerusalem lobby.
The 50 lawmakers who have signed a petition against the Safdie plan include both left-wing and right-wing legislators, and represent a rare mix of secular, modern Orthodox and haredi parties.
Proponents of the city's westward expansion, including Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski, say this is necessary to accommodate Jerusalem's natural growth and Jewish immigration.
The plan to expand the capital westward in the face of the mounting opposition gathered strength in the wake of the cabinet's decision to freeze an alternate decades-old proposal to expand Jerusalem eastward to include Ma'aleh Adumim and the area between that city and the capital.
That plan, commonly known as E-1, was frozen last year in the wake of American pressure not to build in the West Bank.
The Safdie proposal moved closer to implementation last year after an outside consultant appointed by the Interior Ministry gave his approval to the plan.
The cabinet's decision to indefinitely freeze the expansion of Jerusalem eastward led the consultant to endorse westward expansion in its stead as part of an ongoing effort to buttress the capital's dwindling Jewish majority.
But Hebrew University economics Prof. Joram Mayshar, who opposes the Safdie plan, said the real problem facing Jerusalem was not the number of its Jewish residents but rather the makeup of its population.
"This is an undesirable and even dangerous plan which does not deal with the main problems facing the city - the fact that the city is becoming poorer and losing its [economically] stronger population," he said.
The environmental and green groups opposing the plan say that it would irrevocably alter Jerusalem's historic vistas and destroy the remnants of green open spaces around the city.
The alliance of green groups, called the Sustainable Jerusalem Coalition, also pointed to a study they commissioned that indicates that at least 60,000 housing units could be built in Jerusalem over the next two decades, rendering unnecessary the expansion westward, which would "only lead to the neglect of the city itself."
More than 50 green groups oppose the plan, including the Israel Union for Environmental Defense.
A study commissioned by the Zionist Council in Israel that was released in December concluded that the Safdie plan would be detrimental to the development of the city and would only serve to "irrevocably weaken" the capital. It called on the government to implement the eastward expansion of Jerusalem in its stead.