Israel to build 1,200 new homes in Jerusalem, West Bank

Housing minister announces plan, reportedly coordinated with US as tradeoff for prisoner releases; Lapid calls it a ‘double mistake’

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Construction in the neighborhood of Har Homa in East Jerusalem (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Construction in the neighborhood of Har Homa in East Jerusalem (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel’s housing minister has given final approval for the construction of 1,187 new housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, just three days before Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are set to resume in Jerusalem.

Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) announced Sunday that 793 new apartments would be built in Jerusalem, and 394 in large settlement blocs in the West Bank.

“No country in the world takes orders from other countries where it can build and where it can’t,” Ariel said in his statement. “We will continue to market the homes, and to build in the entire country… This is the right thing at the present time, for Zionism and for the economy.”

Ariel has long been a vocal supporter of building across the Green Line, having previously served as secretary general of Amana, a settlement movement, and of the Yesha Council, an umbrella group of settlement municipalities.

Four hundred new units are set to be built in the Gilo neighborhood, 210 in Har Homa, and 183 in Pisgat Zeev neighborhoods of Jerusalem. In the West Bank, Efrat would receive 149 new apartments, Ariel 117, Maaleh Adumim 92, and Beitar 36.

The announcement of the new construction is an apparent tradeoff for Israel agreeing to release 104 long-held Palestinian prisoners in four installments over several months, with the first group of 26 to be freed Tuesday. A ministerial committee was set to convene on Sunday to identify those to be released first.

In November 2010, US President Barack Obama criticized Israeli plans to build hundreds of homes in Har Homa, but unlike in past years, this plan is not expected to draw a stern reaction from the United States. Maariv reported Sunday that this construction plan was presented to the US as part of a coordinated attempt to protect Netanyahu’s coalition while moving peace talks forward. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had long insisted he would not resume talks without an Israeli settlement freeze. In the end, he relented under intense US pressure.

Opposition head MK Shelly Yachimovitch (Labor) called the announcement a “poke in the eye” of Americans, Europeans, Palestinians, and peace-seeking Israelis, and said that Netanyahu needs to decide whether he heads a “government that strives for a political settlement or a government that strives to disrupt any possibility of such an agreement.”

“Although there is no practical meaning to the announcement,” she said, “it torpedoes the budding international recognition and support we have enjoyed because of the initiation of the talks.”

The dovish Peace Now activist group also criticized the announcement. “The promotion of over 1,000 housing units elucidates the importance of a settlement freeze and proves the government’s less than genuine intention to negotiate seriously,” the anti-settlement NGO said in a statement. “ A majority of these plans are outside the separation barrier, planned or built, and thus indicates there is no restraint on expansion into isolated areas.”

Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) called the construction plan a “double mistake.” “The solutions to the housing problems must be enacted in the regions with high demands…The use of resources allocated for middle class housing as a show of defiance in the face of the Americans, in order to impede peace talks, is not helpful to the process.”

MK Zahava Gal-on (Meretz) was more forceful in her denunciation, calling the plan “an IED placed by the government in order to assassinate the political negotiations.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, up for re-election this fall, praised the development. “New building in Jerusalem is crucial for developing and strengthening the city and for allowing young residents to live and acquire an apartment there,” he said on his Facebook page. “I am pleased that Israel’s government sees eye-to-eye with us on this important need. We must continue to intensify building more and more housing units in all parts of the city and for all sectors, alongside continued economic, cultural, and educational development of Jerusalem.”

There was no immediate reaction from the Palestinian Authority.

However, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday charging that Israel’s latest settlement plans were an indication of “Israel’s bad faith and lack of seriousness” in the talks.

Erekat urged Kerry to “take the necessary action to ensure that Israel does not advance any of its settlement plans, and abides by its legal obligations and commitments.”

He said the Palestinians see the move as direct defiance of the US role in facilitating negotiations, adding that it was difficult to see how peace talks could move forward while settlements expand.

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