Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat vigorously defended on Thursday an announcement of new homes in a neighborhood in the southeast of the city, hours after the US greeted news of the construction plans in unusually harsh terms and said it could “poison” Israel’s international relations.
“I say this firmly and clearly: Building in Jerusalem is not poisonous and harmful – rather, it is essential, important and will continue with full force,” Barkat said in statement. “I will not freeze construction for anyone in Israel’s capital.”
“Discrimination based on religion, race or gender is illegal in the United States and in any other civilized country,” Barkat continued. “The 2,600 apartments in Givat Hamatos, which we approved two years ago, will enable more young people from all communities and religions to live in Jerusalem and build their future here, thereby strengthening the capital of Israel. We will not apologize for that.”
Housing Ministry Uri Ariel also took issue with the American condemnation, echoing an earlier comment by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in saying that the US had misunderstood the Givat Hamatos plans.
A third of the houses there would be intended for Arab residents, he said.
“Regrettably, the Americans don’t understand what they are talking about,” Uriel (from the nationalist-Orthodox Jewish Home party) said in a radio interview. “The fact is that this is a plan inside Jerusalem and there is about a third that is construction for Arabs. About two-thirds will be for Jews.”
Ariel noted that the project was a Jerusalem municipality plan and wasn’t initiated by his ministry.
The harsh American condemnations, issued by both the White House and the State Department, came after the anti-settlement group Peace Now revealed that the Jerusalem municipality last week okayed the project in Givat Hamatos.
On Thursday morning, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz accused Peace Now of intentionally trying to embarrass Netanyahu and sour his meeting Wednesday with US President Barack Obama.
“The construction in Givat Hamatos will bolster southern Jerusalem, and that is a good thing,” Katz said in a statement. “The final approval was signed already a week ago, but Peace Now, an obscure organization that receives most of its budget from foreign sources, leaked it on the same day as the meeting between the prime minister and the president of the United States to poison the atmosphere.”
On the left, Meretz party leader MK Zahava Gal-on accused the government of deliberately trying to force out Jerusalem’s Arabs.
“We know that there is a clear trend,” she said. “The idea is to quietly transfer the Arabs of Jerusalem and to encircle East Jerusalem with Jewish settlements.”
She added that Jewish construction in East Jerusalem could forestall a territorially contiguous Palestinian state.
News of the construction plan prompted the US administration on Wednesday to issue some of the strongest language it has employed in recent years in condemning Israel, including a warning that Israel was endangering its relations with its allies.
“This development will only draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from even its closest allies, poison the atmosphere not only with the Palestinians but also with the very Arab governments with which Prime Minister Netanyahu said he wanted to build relations,” said State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki.
Netanyahu rejected the American statements, telling reporters upon his return from the White House to New York: “I don’t understand this criticism, and I don’t accept this position.”
Implying that the US had jumped to erroneous conclusions about the intended neighborhood, he added, “It’s worth learning the information properly before deciding to take a position like that.”
The prime minister also slammed Peace Now for releasing the news, calling it “irresponsible” and saying it had timed the move to harm his talks with Obama.
Gal-on criticized Netanyahu for his attitude toward the US government and his comments about Peace Now.
“The disrespect that Netanyahu has for the Obama administration and the crackdown on Peace Now are indications of panic and loss of of self control,” she said.
“Netanyahu is ignoring Obama’s criticism and is forgetting that Israel needs the Americans. Netanyahu, who only yesterday said he is committed to the two-state solution, is doing everything he can to sabotage the chances of the idea taking shape,” Gal-on added.
Peace Now director Yariv Oppenheimer retorted to Netanyahu, saying that the prime minister had only himself to blame for the furor over the construction project because “he is responsible for the uptick in construction in settlements and in East Jerusalem.”
“It is a shame that he took his frustration out on Peace Now,” he said.
In a reference to the upcoming Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur, Oppenheimer suggested that Netanyahu use the time wisely: “I recommend that the prime minister schedule the next meeting with Obama at the start of Yom Kippur — the only day in the year when they don’t expand the settlements.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.