Barkat backs east J'lem building

Mayor also dismisses pluralism at Kotel as a major issue.

Barkat big face 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Barkat big face 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
WASHINGTON – Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat carried an uncompromising message on east Jerusalem with him on his visit Wednesday to the US Capitol, declaring that there was no freeze on construction and pushing back against government interference in local projects.
“There’s no freeze,” he declared on the heels of reports that a de facto freeze had been imposed to allow peace talks with Palestinians to commence. “There’s a demand from Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem to build, and we’re not going to stop it. It’s illegal to stop it.”
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He acknowledged a “slowdown” following the “shock” of the US “campaign” over east Jerusalem, when the Obama administration condemned Israel for approving 1,600 housing units in Ramat Shlomo during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit – an issue that set off a crisis in US-Israel relations.
Barkat, speaking to reporters after a meeting with Republican congressmen, said that the government and municipality had paused construction out of respect for the US and to consider its reaction, but that it was now “back to business.”
The mayor also appeared to push back against interference by the Prime Minister’s Office in the permitting process – including a new mechanism the latter is said to be setting up, whereby there will be some level of notification and involvement with the office so the prime minister isn’t surprised by housing decisions as he was during Biden’s trip.
“There’s no new process,” Barkat said, adding that while “I’d be more than happy to get the government’s input... we don’t report to the prime minister. It doesn’t work like that.”
On another contentious issue, that of religious pluralism at the city’s holy sites, Barkat was also dismissive.
He was asked to square his stated commitment to access for all religions to the Old City sites with the arrest of non-Orthodox women wearing prayer shawls, or tallitot, at the Western Wall. Though the practice offends ultra-Orthodox sensibilities, it’s in keeping with the practice of the vast majority of the American Jewish community.
“It’s not such a big issue,” he responded.
Barkat – who was flanked by Minority Whip Eric Cantor and Representative Peter Roskam, co-chair of the House Republican Israel Caucus, at the Capitol Hill press conference – received a warm public reception from Republicans.
“We’re here today listening to the mayor’s vision for a Jerusalem that enjoys bipartisan support on Capitol Hill,” said Cantor.
But Democrats took a lower-profile approach to his visit. There were nopress conferences or public statements planned following his eventswith Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and the Democratic IsraelWorking Group.
A Hoyer press aide explained that “it’s our standard procedure with hismeetings. We keep them private and don’t open them up to press.”
And while Cantor and Roskam praised Barkat’s stance on Jerusalem, someDemocratic members appeared more conflicted in their response to thepolicies he was pursuing.
“Although they would like to be sympathetic with the Israeligovernment, they would like to see more movement toward a peace deal,”said one Democratic aide to a representative on the working group,speaking about east Jerusalem. “If we’re going to seriously talk aboutpeace in the context of a two-state solution, you have to at least talkabout Jerusalem.”
He predicted that when the Democratic working group met with Barkatlater Wednesday, “they’re going to give a strong message, becausethey’re frustrated. They value the US-Israel relationship verystrongly, and if you believe that peace is attainable and it’s a goal,you have to talk about Jerusalem.”
Some advocacy groups took an even stronger line. In preparation forBarkat’s Capitol Hill visit, Americans for Peace Now circulated astatement critical of many of his positions on Jerusalem.