East Jerusalem building plans postponed ahead of Obama-Netanyahu meet

East Jerusalem building plans postponed ahead of Obama-Netanyahu meet

City denies any link, but officials confirm political pressure led to calling off meeting to approve new units in Gilo

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo on December 17, 2015. (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)
Homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo on December 17, 2015. (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)

The Jerusalem municipality postponed a meeting planned for Wednesday in which a series of construction projects were set to be approved, including a number in East Jerusalem neighborhoods, hours before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to meet US President Barack Obama in New York.

The Jerusalem city hall initially denied that the meeting, which would have included discussion of housing in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, had been pushed off for political reasons.

However, Meir Turgeman, head of the city’s Planning and Construction Committee, told Israel Radio that the decision had been taken to avoid clashing with the high-stakes political powwow. He said the meeting would be held in two weeks.

The approval of the homes as Netanyahu and Obama meet could have proven highly flammable for the two leaders, coming a day after Obama stridently called for Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian land.

The White House had said Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts would be a central component of the meeting between Netanyahu and Obama, scheduled for 7 p.m. Israel time Wednesday.

Jerusalem City Hall denied that the Planning and Construction Committee’s meeting delay was linked to the meeting or diplomatic pressure, instead citing “technical reasons.”

However, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Dov Kalmanovitz (Jewish Home) accused the city of moving the meeting to avoid coinciding with the Netanyahu-Obama meet.

If construction plans get postponed every time the prime minister meets a foreign official, the US State Department had might as well set up a planning and construction committee for Jerusalem in the municipality’s stead, he said.

The Gilo construction consists of three buildings containing “dozens of apartments,” according to a Channel 2 report from last week. It said the construction contract has been awarded to a company that builds homes for ultra-Orthodox Jews.

An unnamed senior source in the municipality told the TV channel last week that numerous other plans for building in East Jerusalem neighborhoods were now being “taken out of the freezer” and would be approved in the next few months, as the Obama administration nears the end of its term. Projects “big and small” will be approved, the source was quoted as saying, and “never mind the political pressure.”

On Tuesday, an Interior Ministry committee approved construction over the Green Line in the Ramot neighborhood northward, toward the neighboring Arab village of Bir-Nabala, according to Israel Radio.

The Obama administration routinely and bitterly criticizes the Netanyahu government for building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, since it considers such construction to undermine efforts for a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Reports have indicated that Obama plans to ramp up pressure on Jerusalem over peace efforts in the closing months of his term, and after the US signed a $38 billion defense aid package with Israel.

In 2010, a major diplomatic rift was sparked when the Interior Ministry approved housing in the neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, over the Green Line, while US Vice President Joe Biden was visiting.

Senior officials said the move was made without Netanyahu’s knowledge. According to a diplomatic cable leaked earlier this year, Netanyahu turned to European leaders to help patch up ties with Obama in the wake of the affair.

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