Friday, December 21, 2007

Olmert Gov't Bows to US Pressure, Nixes J'lem Neighborhood

Ezra HaLevi

Wednesday's leak of a municipal plan to build a new Jerusalem neighborhood on land of a moshav destroyed in the War of Independence has caused the repudiation of the plan in the face of American pressure. The leak of the plan to build 10,000-15,000 housing units in Atarot, located in the northeastern part of the capital, was followed by hysterical headlines, outraged editorials and a dose of US pressure, resulting in its repudiation by the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Housing Minister.

Haaretz, who published the leaked plan, featured an editorial calling on Jerusalem to be built “up, not out.” The British Daily Telegraph innacurately titled its own piece: “Israel plans new town on seized land,” despite the fact that the area of Atarot is wholly owned by Jews and was even home to a Jewish community before the War of Independence, when it was destroyed by the Jordanians.

In a carefully-crafted, ambiguously worded Hebrew statement sent to Arutz-7, Housing Minister Ze'ev Boim said that there is no "plan/planning" (tichnun) to establish a neighborhood in Atarot.

A day earlier, Boim had defended the plan, saying Israel has the right to build within Jerusalem's municipal boundaries. The eastern neighborhoods of Jerusalem, including the Old City, ethnically cleansed of Jews in 1948 and liberated in the 1967 Six Day War, were annexed by the Knesset and are considered sovereign Israeli territory.

Boim's about-face followed statements from the Prime Minister's Office and Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni that the plan had not yet been authorized and would not be. Aides of both Olmert and Livni claimed their bosses had not been informed of the plans being drawn up for Atarot.

Boim's spokesman Eran Sidis tried to downplay the plan, telling the Hebrew daily newspaper Yediot Acharonot that the plan was but one of several proposals for expanding Jerusalem. “This one was obviously ruled out because of the sensitive nature of the peace talks. We wouldn't even dream of doing it '' the spokesman said.

Rice Pleased
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the AFP news agency, following Olmert, Livni and Boim’s statements, that Israel “Took a good step. I don't know the calculations that went into it, but obviously it's helpful that you don't have that decision to contend with.” Rice said new Jewish communities would “undermine confidence.

“I think that the Israelis understood that what had happened with Har Homa had had an effect of undermining the confidence in the very fragile and brand new peace process,” Rice she added.

Boim Looks West
Boim’s written statement said the Housing Minister was now examining the possibility of renewing the discussion of the Safdie Plan for expanding Jerusalem westward, “in order to provide a solution for the housing crisis in the city.”

Safdie’s plan was rejected by city planners and environmental groups as it entailed the destruction of large swathes of the Jerusalem Forest.

Municipality Looking Beyond Olmert
A common sentiment expressed by Jerusalem municipality members on the condition of anonymity is that building plans take a very long time to make it to the actual building stage.

“Olmert is not going to be prime minister forever,” said one insider. “We have to have plans ready for someone who is willing to solve the housing crunch in Jerusalem and respect Israeli law – which is that Jerusalem was annexed, end of story.”.

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