Israel eyeing East Jerusalem housing project ahead of Bennett’s Washington visit

PM’s office says it wasn’t notified before Housing Ministry placed controversial construction project on docket for early-stage approval

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

The Atarot industrial zone, with the Ramallah suburb Kafr Aqab seen in the background. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The Atarot industrial zone, with the Ramallah suburb Kafr Aqab seen in the background. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Housing Ministry is seeking to advance a controversial housing project in East Jerusalem in the weeks ahead of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s expected visit to Washington.

The ministry placed a 9,000-housing-unit plan to expand the Atarot neighborhood on the agenda for a December meeting of the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee, the Walla news site reported Monday. The new neighborhood would be located at the site of the Atarot Airport, which has been inoperative since the eruption of the Second Intifada in 2000.

An Israeli official confirmed to The Times of Israel that the plan had indeed been placed on the docket, but said that the Prime Minister’s Office had not been notified in advance of the move.

Last week, a coalition source close to Bennett said that the PMO was considering acting to delay an upcoming verdict in a controversial Jerusalem eviction case that was heard by the Supreme Court on Monday due to concerns that a ruling against the Palestinian families my strain relations with the US ahead of Bennett’s trip.

The Atarot project would only receive initial planning approval if it remains on the agenda for December and still will require several subsequent authorizations before ground can be broken, but any advancement of the plan, which has stalled for several years due to international pressure, would be significant.

Following a diplomatic rift with the Obama administration in 2010 when the Housing Ministry — without then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s knowledge — advanced a different controversial project in East Jerusalem while then US Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel for a visit, the Netanyahu government sought to create a mechanism by which the PMO would be kept in the loop regarding the approval of such diplomatically sensitive housing projects in East Jerusalem.

Israel’s outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, shakes hands with his successor, incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, after a special session to vote on a new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP)

But the intra-ministry coordination has apparently not been maintained by the new government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem after capturing the territory in the Six Day War of 1967 in a move not recognized by much of the International community. Palestinians view the area as part of their future capital and accordingly have vehemently opposed construction in neighborhoods such as Atarot, which would bisect a continuum of Palestinian areas stretching from Ramallah to the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Kafr Aqab and Qalandiya.

While the Housing Ministry is headed by Ze’ev Elkin of the right-wing New Hope party, the minister’s office told Walla that he had not given the directive to advance the Atarot project. However, Elkin also does not oppose the construction in principle, the Housing Ministry said.

The Atarot housing plan was first formulated during the Netanyahu government in February 2020. However, it was quickly shelved due to opposition from the Trump administration, which had reserved the areas slated for construction for the Palestinians in its peace plan. Last November, Netanyahu raised the matter with the former president’s team, but failed to gain their approval, and the construction continued to stall.

The Qalandiya checkpoint near the Atarot industrial zone, between East Jerusalem and the West Bank, seen on April 7, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

While Netanyahu during his tenure did bend to American pressure against settlement construction, he maintained that building in East Jerusalem was unique from the West Bank and that Israel would not seek US approval for construction in its own capital. At the same time, he eventually agreed to avoid surprising the US with such announcements and that policy remained in place during both the Obama and Trump administrations. Bennett is widely expected to keep the strategy intact as he seeks to bolster relations with the US.

Two senior Bennett aides — National Security Council chairman Eyal Hulata and diplomatic adviser Shimrit Meir — were in Washington on Monday for meetings with their American counterparts ahead of Bennett’s visit.

No date for the visit has been set, but Bennett’s office hopes he’ll be able to fly in the coming weeks, once the Knesset breaks for summer recess on Sunday.

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