Israel advances East Jerusalem project 25 years after promising Clinton to trash it

Neighborhood to be located on land then-PM moved to expropriate in 1995, sparking outcry; Security Council resolution was vetoed by US in exchange for Rabin backtrack

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

President Bill Clinton shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the White House after their Oval Office meeting and joint news conference, Nov. 12, 1993. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President Bill Clinton shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin at the White House after their Oval Office meeting and joint news conference, Nov. 12, 1993. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)

Municipal authorities on Wednesday advanced a housing plan for a Jewish neighborhood in East Jerusalem to be located in an area that was at the center of an international controversy over a quarter of a century ago.

The project, which was given early-stage approval by the Local Planning Committee in the Jerusalem municipality, will be located beyond the Green Line, nestled along the southwest side of the largely Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa. But while Arab residents of the latter neighborhood have for decades pleaded with municipal leaders for additional housing, the new, distinctly separate neighborhood named Givat Shaked, with its several planned synagogues, appears to be designed for Jews.

Former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin also envisioned a Jewish neighborhood there and ordered authorities to expropriate 134 acres of the open land near Beit Safafa in April 1995 to set the process forward. But news of the plan sparked immediate international uproar as it was the first such expropriation in East Jerusalem in over a decade. It also came against the backdrop of the Oslo Accords, flying in the face of the momentum building for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

A resolution was introduced in the UN Security Council demanding that Israel put off the expropriation. The US, which also condemned the move by Rabin, nevertheless vetoed the resolution.

After initially standing his ground — albeit pledging that the controversial expropriation would be the government’s last — Rabin froze the plan days after the Security Council vote. In the 26-plus years since, no Jewish neighborhood was ever built on that land; nor were any other such expropriations carried out in East Jerusalem.

Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann noted that future efforts to expropriate land in order to expand the Jewish Har Homa neighborhood of East Jerusalem were shelved as Israeli authorities were handcuffed by Rabin’s commitment

In this Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 photo, the construction site of the Begin highway is seen in the Arab neighborhood of Beit Safafa in Jerusalem. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

A former official in Rabin’s government involved in the matter told The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity that while the US veto in the Security Council was not explicitly offered by Clinton in exchange for a promise by Rabin not to move forward with the controversial project, “it was clear the two were connected.”

Asked for comment on the reemergence of the Beit Safafa area construction plan, a US State Department official referred The Times of Israel to remarks made by spokesman Ned Price.

“We continue to believe that it’s critical for Israelis and Palestinians to refrain from steps that exacerbate tensions and that otherwise undercut efforts to advance a negotiate – a negotiated two-state solution,” Price said Monday.

The new project will rest on an area roughly a third of the size of the neighborhood promoted by Rabin. The Jerusalem municipality said in a statement that the Givat Shaked plan is not necessarily designed for a specific demographic.

Monday’s approval is one of the first steps in the process, and the project will still need to be adjudicated in several hearings by the District Planning Committee before construction can begin — a process that often takes months, if not years.

The advancement came just days after the District Planning Committee significantly delayed another controversial housing project in East Jerusalem amid blowback from the Biden administration.

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