It is very tempting to label the recent alleged corruption scandal regarding the Holyland project with such tag lines as “An unholy deed in the holy city.” But more importantly, this story requires some understanding of how such things can happen right under our noses.

1993: This was the first time anyone heard about a construction project planned in the Holyland area. It was named after the charming Holyland Hotel with its panoramic view, which housed the beautiful Second Temple Model (now at the Israel Museum) and had one of the nicest swimming pools in the city and a ravishing garden in which weddings were held.

1994: Ehud Olmert had been mayor for a year, and by now it was clear that King Herod was his role model: Colossal construction projects would soon change the city’s appearance forever – the Begin Highway, the light rail, the sophisticated road system in the northern part of the city, the Mamilla project and more.

1996: The Holyland project, approved by city engineer Uri Ben-Asher, was submitted to the local planning and construction committee, headed by deputy mayor Uri Lupolianski. The committee approved and submitted it to the district committee. So far, the project was essentially a tourism project – a few hotels and a small number of housing units. The Green Party surrendered when it realized that the residents’ committee of Ramat Sharett, the closest neighborhood to the project, had made an agreement with the Holyland developers. Whether it was connected or simply a coincidence, in the following months and years additional construction space was generously approved to land owners in Ramat Sharett.

2000: The project was ongoing. The intifada broke out, and all the optimistic forecasts regarding the masses of tourists expected, following the pope’s visit, crumbled with the bus bombings. The project seemed to be on hold for a while. In the meantime, Olmert released Ben-Asher from his duties and replaced him with a meteor in the skies of architecture, Uri Sheetrit.

2001: The intifada became more virulent and Hillel Cherney, a major investor, feared he was going to be left with empty hotels and empty pockets.

2002: Instead of a hotel complex that would remain empty because tourists were afraid to come to Jerusalem, Cherney proposed only one hotel and transformed the rest of the project into a luxury housing complex. At first, Sheetrit was fiercely opposed to the change. M., a high-ranking official at Kikar Safra at the time, recalls that Olmert banged on the table to persuade all those involved to approve the project. “He truly believed it could be a great asset and attract well-to-do families here to strengthen the city,” says M. 

The change didn’t take into consideration any effects on the nearby neighborhoods, such as more traffic, additional sewage pipes, pollution, lack of public structures and schools. Attorney Rivka Shaked, a resident of Ramat Sharett, told this journalist, “There was no way this project was not infected with the leprosy of corruption. The question was whether we would succeed in exposing it before it was too late.” Shaked and her peers in the struggle against the project did not succeed.

Less than a year later, Sheetrit suddenly became a great fan of the project and dramatically changed the situation on the planning committee, which eventually led to the current situation: a blight on the face of the city with no remedy in sight.
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