Government tells top court it supports controversial Jerusalem cable car plan

State backs project despite opposition from transportation and environmental protection ministers, who say it will damage city’s scenery, sensitivities

The planned cable car to Jerusalem's Old City. (Screenshot/Emek Shaveh)
The planned cable car to Jerusalem's Old City. (Screenshot/Emek Shaveh)

The government told Israel’s highest court this week that it supports the controversial construction of a cable car in Jerusalem that would ferry passengers into the Old City.

The court was set to hold final hearings on the project on Thursday.

The state expressed its approval for the project despite opposition from the ministers of transportation and environmental protection.

The court had requested the statement from the government as part of the approval process, coming after petitions were made and ahead of a decision by the court’s justices.

The statement answers several questions raised during discussions on the project, including from Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli.

“The cable car project to the Old City is a tourism project that is being advanced by the Tourism Ministry and the Jerusalem Development Authority. The cable car does not have a significant transportation role, and the damage will outweigh the benefits,” Michaeli said last month.

Merav Michaeli speaks during a conference in northern Israel, on November 16, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion appealed to the attorney general’s office, saying Michaeli did not have legal weight to oppose the program, since it was a national infrastructure plan that had already been approved by a ministerial committee.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg also opposed the plan, saying the cable car will “damage the scenery and the sensitivity of the area.”

The government support statement said that even though the two ministers had expressed opposition to the plan, their positions “certainly do not change the plan or cancel it.”

Building the cable car will require the construction of huge pylons along the route, with critics warning it will irreversibly alter the city’s unique, historically significant skyline.

The municipality backs the project, asserting it will alleviate road blockages in the area and be a draw for tourists.

The project was greenlit by a previous Likud-led government in 2018. Preliminary excavation works began in April of this year, despite the court still considering the petitions.

The cable car, for which the government has already budgeted NIS 200 million ($55.2 million), is planned to stretch from the First Station cultural complex in the south of the city to the Old City’s Dung Gate, which is the closest entrance to the Western Wall, Judaism’s most venerated prayer site. Mount Zion will host the only station along the way. A maintenance depot is to be built in the neighborhood of Abu Tor.

The project’s backers insist that it will be a tourist attraction and will help relieve traffic gridlock caused mainly by tour buses.

But the plan’s critics say the cable car will turn Jerusalem’s most precious historic vistas into a theme park. An analysis of traffic data released in July of last year appears to undermine the other major claim made for the cable car — that it will relieve traffic congestion along the Old City walls. The analysis suggested that an increase in shuttles would be a better, faster, and cheaper way of ferrying tourists from southern Jerusalem to the Dung Gate.

In a last-ditch attempt to stop the project, opponents petitioned the High Court. The court responded by ordering the government and all the other bodies involved to detail the “factual basis” on which the cable car meets the wording of the planning law — whether it really will “serve as a tourist attraction” and “make a real contribution to tourism in the area.”

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