Netanyahu instructs housing minister to 'reconsider' plans for 24,000 units beyond Green Line

PM freezes E1 plans, so as not to deflect attention from Iran.

E1 area 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
E1 area 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu directed Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel to “reconsider” preliminary plans for some 24,000 housing units beyond the Green Line, saying the move would harm efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
He said the announcement of the preliminary planning was without any statutory standing, would do nothing to promote settlement, and would only create an unnecessary conflict with the international community at a time when intensive efforts were under way to get an improved deal between the world powers and Iran.
Ariel, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, agreed to reconsider all the plans.
The initial revelation that the ministry had begun the preliminary planning for the units sparked renewed diplomatic strain with the US on Tuesday.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US was surprised and “deeply concerned” by the announcement.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, threatened to take the issue to the UN Security Council immediately and intensify efforts to join various UN organizations.
“In the coming hours, the Palestinian leadership is going to consider appealing to the UN Security Council and seeking membership of international organizations if Israel does not reverse its latest settlement moves,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.
The current round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations began in July, when the Palestinians agreed to freeze efforts to gain acceptance in various UN bodies, and Israel agreed to free 104 convicted Palestinian terrorists in four stages.
Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office expressed “unhappiness” Tuesday at the timing of the preliminary planning for the units, which are spread throughout the West Bank.
Peace Now revealed Tuesday that the Construction and Housing Ministry had issued tenders in the last two weeks for preliminary work to be done on the units, including hiring an architect to begin drawing up plans for some 1,200 units in E1, extending Ma’aleh Adumim toward Jerusalem.
Government officials said Netanyahu, after being informed of the developments on Tuesday, had stepped in immediately and demanded that the ministry freeze the E1 plans, saying this issue was too sensitive and would detract international attention from Iran.
Israel was roundly censured in December 2011 when it announced plans to develop E1 following the UN General Assembly’s vote to grant non-member statehood status to the Palestinians.
“We think the people in the Construction and Housing Ministry should be more responsible,” one government official said, stopping short of accusing Bayit Yehudi’s Ariel of intentionally trying to sabotage negotiations with the Palestinians. “Maybe somebody was looking for headlines.”
According to the official, Netanyahu specifically instructed that the E1 plans not be worked on “because at this sensitive time, the international focus must be clearly on Iran, and we don’t want any issue to divert the attention of the international community from this crucial goal.”
Asked why, if Netanyahu was concerned about the international reaction, he did not ask the ministry to shelve all the plans at this time, the official said it was because E1 was the most sensitive.
A Construction and Housing Ministry spokesman said that preliminary tenders such as these were issued by the tens of thousands throughout the year and throughout the country, and that the vast majority – for various reasons, ranging from environmental concerns to objections from planning bodies – did not come to fruition. He said that of the 650,000 units in the country that were in various preliminary stages of planning, only some 25,000 would likely be built, and that only over a period of four to 20 years.
Regardless, the issue is sure to further strain ties with the US, the Palestinians and key actors in the international community who protested strongly earlier this month against Israel’s announcement of the construction of 3,500 units – many of them in east Jerusalem – following the release of a second batch of 26 Palestinian prisoners.
Netanyahu caught wind of the plans after Justice Minister Tzipi Livni – who was contacted by foreign ambassadors who had learned of the tenders from Peace Now – called cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit for clarifications.
In addition to E1, the plans include 2,500 units in Ma’aleh Adumim and some 12,000 units throughout the Binyamin region – including in Shilo, Eli, Mitzpe Yeriho and Shvut Rachel. The rest are in the Gush Etzion region.
According to Peace Now, the total number of technical plans is 23,786, of which 4,000 are in east Jerusalem and 19,786 are in the West Bank. Peace Now spokesman Lior Amihai said the level of planning was unusual, but cautioned that it would be years before any building could actually take place.
“These planning tenders do not mean imminent construction,” Peace Now said. “With tenders for construction, we can expect plans to be implemented on the ground imminently.
With tenders for planning, what we are seeing is a very early stage that can open the door for construction not in the short term, but several years down the road.”
Nonetheless, it said, the tenders are “a serious government action, involving costs estimated by the ministry at over NIS 49 million and paving the way for construction in coming years. As such, they constitute an important indicator of the government’s intentions for future construction in the planned areas.”
Ma’aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Kashriel called on Netanyahu to allow planning to move forward for E1, noting that nothing could be built without further approval from the prime minister.
In a letter he wrote to Netanyahu, Kashriel said, “I understand that we are under pressure from the US government because of the need to stop Iran’s nuclear program and the need to advance the negotiations with the Palestinians. But preparing building plans for land in Ma’aleh Adumim is solely a municipal issue. Marketing homes would still need authorization from the prime minister.”
He continued, “I am therefore asking you to rescind your decision to freeze technical planning for [E1] and to allow the Construction and Housing Ministry to continue its work on these plans.”
Kashriel added that building homes in E1 would help provide a solution to the housing shortage in his city and in nearby Jerusalem and would in particular allow for young couples to purchase their first homes.
MK Orit Struck (Bayit Yehudi) said Netanyahu’s decision with regard to E1 was one more worrying sign of unfair concessions to the US.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich accused Netanyahu’s government of operating with two heads.
“One head enters and exits the room and conducts a serious negotiation, and the second does everything in its power to clarify to the world that Israel doesn’t have any real intention to come to an agreement with the Palestinians, but rather will continue the conflict,” she said.
“The wave of building in the settlements, to which were added 20,000 homes, has far reaching consequences for Israel’s international standing,” she argued. “This step only adds fuel to the tension with the American government and endangers our strategic alliance with it.”