Jerusalem: The Israeli government has imposed a de facto freeze on new Jewish construction in the city`s disputed eastern sector despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu`s public insistence it would not be stopped in the face of US pressure, Jerusalem municipal officials said Monday.
The apparent freeze would likely reflect Netanyahu`s need to mend a serious rift with the US over Israeli construction on lands the Palestinians claim for a future state, and to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
However, it remained unclear if the slowdown actually constituted a moratorium or how long it would last.
An Israeli government official claimed a weekslong delay in reviewing plans for new construction was a bureaucratic issue and not evidence of a freeze. But the fact that new plans are not going ahead dovetails with signs that the Palestinians might ease their demand that the contentious construction stop before they resume peace talks.
Jerusalem Councilman Meir Margalit of the dovish Meretz Party said top Jerusalem officials intimately involved with construction projects told him Netanyahu`s office ordered a freeze after Israel infuriated Washington last month by announcing a major new east Jerusalem housing development during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden.
Palestinians claim that sector of the city as their future capital and after word of the project got out, they called off indirect peace talks that the US was about to start brokering. Palestinian leaders will seek backing this week from the Arab League to participate in those talks.
"The government ordered the Interior Ministry immediately after the Biden incident to not even talk about new construction for Jewish homes in east Jerusalem," Margalit said. "It`s not just that building has stopped: The committees that deal with this are not even meeting anymore."
He asked not to identify the officials who informed him of the order because they had not approved the disclosure of their names. A Jerusalem municipal spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking interviews with the officials.
Another councilman, Meir Turujamen, who sits on the Interior Ministry committee that approves building plans, said his panel has not met since the Biden visit, after previously meeting once weekly.
"I wrote a letter about three weeks or a month ago asking (Interior Minister Eli) Yishai why the committee isn`t convening," he said. "To this day I haven`t received an answer.
Turujamen added that the last time his committee met was to approve the 1,600-apartment Ramat Shlomo project that riled the Americans.
He said he received no official word of a de facto freeze order, "but based on the situation, those are the facts. We used to meet once a week, and now for several months we haven`t met. It`s clear there`s an order."
A separate municipal planning committee, which answers to the city, has only met once — last week, giving preliminary approval to a synagogue and kindergarten in a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem, he said.
An engineer who oversees residential construction in a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem said requests for proposals to build hundreds of apartments haven`t gone out. "I think it`s related to the political situation," he said, adding that he knew of no official order to block construction.
The engineer spoke on condition of anonymity because he does business with the city and speaking out on this issue might risk putting that in jeopardy.
Netanyahu has said that he was taken by surprise by the approval of the Ramat Shlomo project while Biden was here, and aides announced that he would make sure he would be kept in the loop in the future before any decisions were taken on controversial construction.
It was not clear how a freeze would affect the Ramat Shlomo project, which has received final approval. However, Netanyahu told Biden during the vice president`s visit that the project would take years to build.
Asked about Margalit`s claim that a freeze order was in effect, government spokesman Mark Regev replied: "Following the Biden visit and the mishap, the prime minister asked that a mechanism be put in place to prevent a recurrence of this kind of debacle."
He would not elaborate, and stopped short of saying Netanyahu had ordered a freeze.
Efrat Orbach, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, said this mechanism explained why planning committee meetings were being delayed, because now multiple ministries had to be involved in the coordination.
"There is no freeze, there is bureaucracy," Orbach said.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, the site of sacred shrines holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians, in the 1967 Middle East war and immediately annexed it. Some 180,000 Israelis now live in Jewish neighborhoods built there in the past four decades, and about 2,000 more live in the heart of traditionally Arab neighborhoods.
The Palestinians, the US and the rest of the international community do not recognize the annexation and regard the neighborhoods as no different from the settlements that Israel built in the West Bank.
The hawkish Netanyahu, however, has said repeatedly that east Jerusalem will remain under Israeli sovereignty in any peace deal, a position the Palestinians reject outright. Most of the partners in his hardline coalition have publicly opposed sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians or freezing construction in east Jerusalem.