'Intense' phone call also saw disagreements over Iran

Blinken initiated call with PM, amid doubts Israel actually called off Atarot plan

US dismayed to find East Jerusalem housing project back on docket of planning committee’s agenda for next week, after Israeli officials leaked that plan was shelved, sources say

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (Composite/AP)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. (Composite/AP)

NEW YORK — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken initiated a phone call with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Thursday to express his dismay over Israeli plans to advance a controversial East Jerusalem housing project despite signaling last week that it had shelved the plan, sources familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel.

The phone call was “intense,” an official said, with Blinken expressing the Biden administration’s vehement opposition to the 9,000-home plan in Atarot, which supporters of a two-state solution argue would mark a death knell for the proposal by creating a wedge in the middle of Palestinian contiguity between Ramallah and East Jerusalem.

Last Wednesday, a local committee in the Jerusalem municipality gave preliminary approval to the project slated for construction on the grounds of the old Atarot airport and intended to be an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, sparking concern from Washington. The next step in the approval would see the project green-lit through the “deposit” stage by the District Planning Committee in the Interior Ministry.

However, last Thursday, senior Israeli officials confirmed to The Times of Israel that they had assured their American counterparts that the Atarot project had been shelved.

The Interior Ministry subsequently removed the plan from its docket hours later after the District Planning Committee had been scheduled to adjudicate the plan on December 6.

On Sunday though, those following the matter closely noticed that the Atarot plan had returned to the website of the Interior Ministry, which confirmed that the plan is indeed on the docket for next Monday.

The abandoned Atarot Airport, north of Jerusalem, on November 25, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

To further complicate matters, a source familiar with the matter told THe Times of Israel on Thursday that the State Department only learned of the Israeli commitment to shelve the project from the media and that no message was passed along directly to them.

The State Department declined a request for comment on the matter. The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to a request for comment on the record.

Related: The dizzy rise, swift fall, and planned radical repurposing of Jerusalem Airport

The State Department later issued a read-out of the conversation saying: “Secretary Blinken and Prime Minister Bennett affirmed the strong US-Israel partnership and discussed regional security issues, including Iran and the ongoing talks in Vienna concerning Iran’s nuclear program, as well as the global challenge posed by COVID-19.”

“The Secretary also strongly emphasized that Israel and the Palestinian Authority should refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution, including advancing settlement activity.”

The source said Bennett assured Blinken that the plan would not receive final approval for construction, but Blinken — who received a detailed briefing on the matter ahead of the call — resisted and said that any advancement of the plan at all would be unacceptable, as far as Washington is concerned.

Jerusalem appears determined to advance the plan through the deposit stage so that it will only require one additional approval from the District Planning Committee in order to begin breaking ground, the well-placed source suggested.

While the committee responsible for advancing the plan is under the auspices of Yamina lawmaker Ayelet Shaked’s Interior Ministry, the project itself is being marketed by the Housing Ministry headed by New Hope’s Ze’ev Elkin, who has already made clear in recent months that he plans to use his post to advance Israeli construction beyond the Green Line.

One coalition lawmaker told ToI that given the lack of agreement among members of the diverse coalition — which includes, right-wing, centrist, left-wing, and Arab parties — on the issue of Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, each minister is working to advance their own party’s agenda from their own respective office, leaving Bennett with the difficult task of maintaining order.

New Hope MK Zeev Elkin (L) seen in the plenum hall of the Israeli parliament during the voting in the presidential elections, in Jerusalem, June 2, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

The new government has sought to avoid public spats with the Biden administration and behind closed doors has assured Washington that Israel would not break ground on projects in other sensitive areas such as E-1 near the Ma’ale Adumim settlement, the source said.

In the meantime, though, a Defense Ministry body responsible for authorizing West Bank construction held a meeting in October to discuss the E-1 plan and a local planning committee in Jerusalem approved the expropriation of public land for the controversial East Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Hamatos last month, as Israeli authorities appear determined to advance construction as quietly as possible.

Hagit Ofran from the Peace Now settlement watchdog said that “if the [Atarot] plan is advanced by the District Planning Committee on Monday, it will be much more difficult to stop.”

“It’s also unacceptable that the [left-wing members of the] Change Government are the ones with their names on the approval of a plan that is diametrically opposed to the two-state solution,” she said, adding that even former president Donald Trump’s peace plan — which was criticized as being overly partial in favor of Israeli demands — envisions the Atarot land as being under Palestinian control.

Every Israeli government since 1967 has expanded Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and settlements in the West Bank, territories that Israel captured in the Six Day War that year and that the Palestinians want for their future state. The Palestinians view the settlements and the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem — now housing some 700,000 people — as a prime obstacle to peace, and most of the international community considers them illegal.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has criticized settlement construction as an obstacle to eventually reviving the long-moribund peace process, but has not demanded a freeze.

After initially appearing to give the Bennett government some leeway to order ensure its stability, the administration’s objections to Israeli settlement construction have become more strident in recent days.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the Security Council Tuesday that Israel’s settlement building in the West Bank “has reached a critical juncture, and it is now undermining even the very viability of a negotiated two-state solution.”

Adding to the intensity of Blinken’s call with Bennett were disagreements over the ongoing indirect negotiations between the US and Iran in Vienna aimed at reviving the nuclear accord between them, the official familiar said.

According to his office, Bennett told Blinken that Iran was utilizing “nuclear blackmail” as a tactic and therefore the United States should initiate “an immediate cessation of negotiations.”

Bennett also made clear that Israel opposes the notion of a “less for less” nuclear deal with Iran, Channel 12 said, such a deal would see the US lift some sanctions in return for Iran scaling back some of its nuclear activity.

Such a pared-down agreement is reportedly being considered in the event a full return to the 2015 deal is unreachable.

Despite the tensions Blinken tried to put a positive spin on the call in his public remarks, telling reporters it was “a very good and detailed conversation.”

“We have exactly the same strategic objectives. We are both determined to ensure Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon… We will continue to be in very close contact with Israel,” he said.

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