On eve of High Court hearing, new tourism minister backs Old City cable car plan

On eve of High Court hearing, new tourism minister backs Old City cable car plan

Despite overtures to Blue and White Party minister to ditch predecessor’s much-maligned scheme, Asaf Zamir says pros outweigh cons, project ‘in the public interest’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Artist's impression of a cable car crossing Jerusalem's Hinnom Valley to Mount Zion, from a promotional video uploaded to YouTube.
Artist's impression of a cable car crossing Jerusalem's Hinnom Valley to Mount Zion, from a promotional video uploaded to YouTube.

Those hoping that a new, non-Likud party tourism minister would dump his predecessor’s controversial plan for a cable car stretching across a historic valley to the Old City of Jerusalem can prepare to be disappointed.

Asaf Zamir, of the Blue and White Party, who recently replaced the Likud’s Yariv Levin as tourism minister, has decided not to jettison the plan, despite appeals to him by numerous organizations.

On Monday morning at 8 a.m., opponents of the project will protest at the junction of Jerusalem’s Rabin and Zusman streets, near the High Court, just before the court discusses petitions against the project from a host of civil society and environmental organizations.

There were hopes in some quarters that the Tourism Ministry might change direction at the last minute and the High Court case could be aborted.

Blue and White MK Asaf Zamir at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 14, 2019. (Hadas Parush/ Flash90)

But in a statement to The Times of Israel Sunday, the ministry said it had “weighed all the relevant considerations and reached the conclusion that balancing the interests between the cable car’s importance as national infrastructure, and the benefits it will bring to the entire public, and the claims that were made [against], the advantages of building the project outweigh the disadvantages.”

The statement said the project would improve access to the Old City and boost both tourism and employment opportunities in and around the Old City for hundreds of thousands of people.

“The ministry does not belittle the claims made by the various organizations, and appreciates the sensitivities associated with its [the project’s] establishment but the public interest outweighs them,” it said.

The statement included a reminder that the previous government approved the plan and that some NIS 200 million ($58 million) had already been earmarked, divided equally between the tourism and finance ministries.

Artist’s impression of cable cars crossing Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley, from a promotional video posted to YouTube.

The cable car is billed as a tourism attraction as well as a solution to serious traffic congestion and pollution around the Old City walls (even though the Transportation Ministry has never been involved). But critics say it will be an eyesore that will contribute to the “Disneyfication” of the area around the ancient quarter.

According to the plan’s backers, up to 3,000 people will be ferried per hour at peak time in up to 72 10-person cabins between the First Station commercial and entertainment area and the Old City’s Dung Gate, near the Western Wall.

Cabins will pass from the First Station through the the neighborhood of Abu Tor, before sailing above the Hinnom Valley to a stop at Mount Zion, then continue over the Palestinian village of Silwan to their final destination — the still-to-be built Kedem Center — a massive, multi-story complex that the right-wing City of David Foundation is planning to build on top of the Givati parking lot, near the Dung Gate, just outside the Old City walls.

The whole 1.5 kilometer (one mile) journey is set to take less than five minutes.

The project was strongly backed by Yariv Levin, the former tourism minister currently serving as Knesset speaker.

An artist’s rendering of a station on the route of the future cable car that will stretch from Jerusalem’s First Station to the Western Wall in the Old City. (Courtesy, Jerusalem Development Authority)

But architects, academics, preservation experts and tour guides, from Israel and overseas, have called it a poorly thought-out idea that will scar the historic landscape with 15 massive pylons, sully unique views of the Old City and its walls — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — and do little to solve the city’s traffic problems.

The project was fast-tracked by the National Planning Council — a Finance Ministry body set up to handle major infrastructure projects such as gas and railway lines that cross local authority boundaries.

A 2016 government amendment to the planning law — apparently tailored to this specific project — added “tourist infrastructure” projects to the definition of “national infrastructure” ones, and specifically named tourism transportation systems.

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