The Israel Lands Authority published a tender for 1,257 homes in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Hamatos on Sunday. It likely will be the first major challenge for US President-elect Joe Biden on Israeli activity over the pre-1967 lines.
The move comes hours before the government’s ratification of its normalization deal with Bahrain and just over a week since Biden was declared president-elect.
The Israeli Right and the settler leadership is looking to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take steps to solidify Israel’s hold on areas over the pre-1967 lines in the remaining two months of President Donald Trump’s term.
Netanyahu had initially promised to build the Givat Hamatos neighborhood, which is seen as important in cementing Israel’s sovereignty over east Jerusalem. The project would form a contiguous line of Jewish east Jerusalem neighborhoods linking Gilo and Har Homa.
It is one of the redlines for the international community and the Palestinians. They maintain that the project would sever east Jerusalem Palestinians from Bethlehem and would deny them contiguity between the two areas as part of a future Palestinian state.
Publication of the tender took place before Netanyahu had called Biden to congratulate him on his electoral victory and is likely to present the first real challenge to their relationship.
The project is essential for maintaining Jewish contiguity in Jerusalem between the neighborhoods of Talpiot and Gilo, Coalition Chairman Miki Zohar (Likud) said.
“Until now, the tender had been frozen in light of international diplomatic sensitivity to [Jewish] building over the pre-1967 lines,” he said.
This period “provides an opportunity that will not repeat itself to strengthen our hold on the Land of Israel,” Zohar said. “I am certain that our friend, President Trump, and Prime Minister Netanyahu will maximize this time to the best of their abilities.”
Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chairman Zvi Hauser (Derech Eretz) said he welcomed the lifting of the freeze. It had only served to support the Palestinian interest in dividing Jerusalem, he tweeted.
In the Trump administration’s last weeks, “Israel’s de facto #annexation & land grab are on overdrive,” starting with Givat Hamatos, the PLO Department of Public Diplomacy and Policy tweeted.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney urged the European Union to take action, in what was interpreted as a call for sanctions.
Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, immediately asked Israel to rescind its decision. Givat Hamatos occupied a strategic place when it comes to the connection between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, he said.
“The government of Israel should instead show vision and responsibility and reverse these negative decisions at this critical and sensitive time,” Borrell said.
Such building “will seriously damage prospects for a two-state solution in line with international law,” he said.
The left-wing group Peace Now said: “This is a lethal blow to the prospects for peace and the possibility of a two-state solution. This Netanyahu-[Benny] Gantz government was established to fight the coronavirus, but instead it is taking advantage of the final weeks of the Trump administration in order to set facts on the ground that will be exceedingly hard to undo in order to achieve peace.”
“This tender can still be stopped,” it said. “We hope that those in this government who still have some sense of responsibility for our future will do what they can to cancel the tender before bids are submitted.”
“Netanyahu and Biden are expected to clash on issues with regard to Jewish building in east Jerusalem and West Bank settlements,” Peace Now said.
Publication of the tender is not the final stage before project execution. The details of the project were subject to change, and the tender could be canceled, the ILA said on its website.
The project initially had been slated for 4,000 new homes, including 1,000 that would be set aside for the expansion of the east Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa.
“Of all the terrible things being done to #Palestinians by their own leaders new family neighborhoods is what you choose to condemn?” Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum tweeted, referring to the project’s building of new homes for Arab residents of Jerusalem.
Peace Now said the tender in question was not part of the Beit Safafa expansion.
NETANYAHU initially had promised to allow building to begin on the project during the election campaign in February. In the aftermath of the pledge, the ILA issued the permit but never published it, a move that effectively kept the project frozen.
Pledges for subsequent publication dates were never adhered to. With its publication of this tender – whose date for submission ends on January 18, just two days prior to Biden’s inauguration – the number of units was increased from 1,077 to 1,257.
Aviv Tatarsky of the left-wing NGO Ir Amim last week told The Jerusalem Post he feared movement would occur on the project because the Antiquities Authority had been in the area surveying the site, something that always takes place prior to construction.
Building permits have been issued for 115 housing units in Jerusalem’s Jewish neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, he said.
Ramat Shlomo is particularly sensitive for Netanyahu and Biden. In 2010, plans were deposited for 1,600 homes in the neighborhood during a visit by Biden, who was then vice president.
The Trump administration has not recognized Israeli sovereignty over east Jerusalem. But it undertook many moves to recognize Israel’s rights to the city, including areas over the pre-1967 lines, which were formally annexed in 1980.
According to Trump’s peace, the majority of east Jerusalem should remain under Israeli sovereignty in any final resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was the first US president to recognize that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and he relocated the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
As a senator, Biden supported the 1995 Congressional US Embassy act that recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and mandated relocation of the embassy. On the campaign trail, he said he had no plans to move it back to Tel Aviv.
But unlike Trump, he maintains that most of east Jerusalem, including Givat Hamatos, should be part of a future Palestinian state. He is expected to oppose significant Jewish building in east Jerusalem.
According to Peace Now, tenders for Jewish construction in east Jerusalem were low under the Trump administration until this year. Tenders were issued for 130 units in 2017, 603 in 2018, 805 in 2019 and 1,754 in 2020. The 2020 data includes the Givat Hamatos project.
The numbers were higher under the Obama administration for the years 2012-2014. Some 2,554 tenders were issued in 2012, 2,015 in 2013 and 2,240 in 2014.
The move placed Netanyahu and Biden on the wrong foot, would create problems with the UN Security Council and would likely put a monkey wrench in any attempt to normalize ties with Saudi Arabia, former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk said.
“Does @netanyahu want to embarrass @JoeBiden with controversial building in east Jerusalem just like 2010?” he tweeted. “It will go straight to UN Security Council as Biden takes office causing a problem for Saudi Arabia too as it considers normalization.”