The construction of 1,500 apartments in an East Jerusalem neighborhood has reportedly been held up by the Interior Ministry on orders from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, because the project is a diplomatic minefield.
The final paperwork required to begin construction of the apartments in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood has been stuck in the ministry for over three weeks, Army Radio reported Monday.
The construction of the apartments was announced in May 2010 during a visit to Israel by US Vice President Joe Biden, causing a diplomatic flurry.
Ramat Shlomo, located on land captured by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, has a large, established ultra-Orthodox community and the apartments constitute an expansion plan for the neighborhood.
The Jerusalem Regional Planning Committee approved the plan five months ago, on condition that certain emendations be made by the Israel Land Authority. The authority submitted the corrections to the Interior Ministry three weeks ago, but since then there has been no response.
A government source was quoted as saying that Interior Ministry officials were instructed by the Prime Minister’s Office to not approve the changes, because the project was too sensitive.
Their approval by the Jerusalem planning committee last December prompted condemnation from UK Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt, who suggested Israeli construction in East Jerusalem contravened the Geneva Convention.
The Interior Ministry responded that not all the conditions for the plan have been fulfilled — a claim rejected outright by the Israel Land Authority — while the Prime Minister’s Office refused to comment on the matter.
Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was said to have instructed Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) to freeze all new tenders on settlement construction. Ariel refused to comment directly on his meeting with Netanyahu, but indicated that reports of a freeze were accurate.
The informal freeze was reportedly linked to a recent US initiative to restart long-stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Palestinians have been demanding that Israel halt all settlement activity as a precondition for resuming peace talks. Thus far, Netanyahu has maintained that settlement construction was among the issues to be discussed at the negotiating table, along with other final-status issues such as Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugees, borders, and security.
In November 2009, facing mounting pressure from US President Barack Obama, Netanyahu implemented a settlement freeze that lasted 10 months. Talks briefly restarted at the end of that period, but PA President Mahmoud Abbas then aborted them, and Netanyahu did not extend the freeze.
In a speech in Jerusalem in March, Obama urged Israelis to “recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace.” He also told Abbas in Ramallah to get back to the talks without preconditions.
Michal Shmulovich contributed to this report.