The Jerusalem municipality has approved the construction of 108 housing units in a Jewish neighborhood of East Jerusalem that has in the past rocked ties with Washington, with a source reportedly saying further building projects may be advanced before US President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in at the beginning of the year.
The housing approved Tuesday is to be built in the ultra-Orthodox Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, an area that became the focus of a diplomatic spat between Israel and the Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice president, over a previous massive construction project there.
During an official visit by Biden in 2010, the Interior Ministry announced that 1,600 housing units would be built in Ramat Shlomo. The declaration embarrassed Biden, as Washington was opposed to Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as the capital of a future state.
Biden fumed at the time, saying in a statement that it “undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I’ve had here in Israel.” The construction project, which later gained the epithet “the Biden Plan,” was eventually put on hold, although anti-settlement groups claimed that paperwork for the scheme was continually advanced in the following years.
A municipal source told the Kan public broadcaster that the local planning and construction committee will soon advance further housing in Ramat Shlomo “hopefully before the swearing-in ceremony” for Biden, which will be held January 20.
The source denied that the timing of the recent approval was political and noted that construction work in the neighborhood had been going on for a long time.
Planning and construction staff in the municipality and the Israel Lands Authority have been told to identify and advance construction projects in East Jerusalem before Biden’s inauguration, amid concerns that the incoming administration will be less sympathetic to such projects than that of outgoing US President Donald Trump, the Haaretz daily reported.
The Jerusalem municipality told Haaretz that it is working to advance construction throughout the city to provide residential housing, employment and hotels.
The Ir Amim anti-settlement organization accused the government of trying to take advantage of the change in administrations by quickly pushing construction projects.
Biden’s ire in 2010 yielded an effective freeze on construction in East Jerusalem with any new projects also requiring approval of the Prime Minister’s Office, which was not granted. The freeze was lifted when Trump took office in 2016 and the controversial Ramat Shlomo project was eventually completed, along with other plans in East Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Gilo, Pisgat Ze’ev, and Har Homa.
Construction in Ramat Shlomo also ran into local opposition from the ultra-Orthodox community as some of the building work was in areas where protesters say there are ancient Jewish graves that must not be disturbed.
Another area in Jerusalem where construction projects are expected to take a step forward before Biden’s inauguration is Givat Hamatos, where critics say planned Israeli housing would leave the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa hemmed in from all sides and cut off from Bethlehem and the West Bank.
A string of US administrations, along with the rest of the international community, opposed Israeli construction in East Jerusalem as well as settlement construction in the West Bank.
But Trump, surrounded by a team of advisers with close ties to the settler movement, has taken a different approach. In contrast to its predecessors, the Trump administration has not criticized or condemned new settlement announcements, and in a landmark decision last year, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the US does not consider settlements to be illegal under international law.