Barkat holds off on Silwan plan after call from PM

J’lem mayor confident that residents will eventually sign on to initiative.

barkat speaks 311 (photo credit: Ehud Zion Waldoks)
barkat speaks 311
(photo credit: Ehud Zion Waldoks)
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat agreed on Tuesday to a last-minute request from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that he postpone the launch of a redevelopment plan in a section of the city’s Silwan neighborhood until an agreement was reached with its Palestinian residents, whose homes would be torn down as part of the proposal.
The plan is centered around a section of the southeastern neighborhood known as El-Bustan, or Gan Hamelech, which Barkat hopes to completely redevelop and turn into the “Abu Ghosh of east Jerusalem” – tearing down a large swath of houses located at the base of the Kidron Valley to make way for a national park.
Residents would be relocated during the construction and then moved into new multi-story apartment buildings, built along the park’s edges, which would also include shops, restaurants, art galleries and a large community center complete with day care facilities and gyms.
The mayor was expected to announce the plan’s launch during a press conference scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, but instead he used the briefing to formally present the details of the initiative to members of both the foreign and local media.
Netanyahu, according to a statement released by his office, called Barkat in the morning, just hours before the press conference, and asked him for the delay.
The prime minister was apparently concerned about negative fallout the plan might generate, saying he had no intention of interfering with municipal affairs, but that there were many “interested parties” keen on stirring up a dispute and presenting a “distorted” picture of the situation.
The call to Barkat came within two weeks of the prime minister’s own decision to place the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, as well as Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, on a list of Jewish historical sites to be preserved – a move that has unleashed days of violence in Hebron and condemnations from around the world.
But even with Tuesday’s announcement of the postponement of Barkat’s plan, the initiative drew its own condemnations, both from the Palestinians and the UN.
“There is no way the Palestinians can accept the demolishing of houses in Jerusalem and the continuation of building settlements for the Jewish settlers, while the United States is trying to bring the parties together,” Palestinian Authority cabinet minister Muhammad Ishtayeh said on Tuesday.
“We fully and totally condemn all these Israeli measures,” he added.
Richard Miron, the spokesman for the UN Special Coordinator’s Office for the Mideast Peace Process, released a statement on Tuesday calling the mayor’s plans “a matter of serious concern.”
“We’re trying to reduce tensions at the current time, not exacerbate them,” the statement read. “Whatever the intentions behind such a project, Israel needs to understand that demolishing Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem demolishes confidence among Palestinians and frankly, also internationally.”
While the Jerusalem municipality confirmed Tuesday that the mayor’s plan had been shelved and would not be discussed during an upcoming meeting of the city’s Local Planning and Building Council, Barkat himself said he was confident that Silwan residents affected by the plan would eventually sign on to it.
“This is a plan that will benefit the [Palestinian] residents,” Barkattold reporters, adding that his plan for Gan Hamelech was aimed at“taking on an area that has been neglected and turning it intosomething we can all be proud of.”
“I call on the residents and the public to show interest [in the plan]and help us to improve the quality of life there,” the mayor added.
Herb Keinon and AP contributed to this report.