JERUSALEM – The Israeli government has imposed a de facto freeze on new Jewish construction in Jerusalem's disputed eastern sector, municipal officials said Monday. The decision was made despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's public insistence that building would not be stopped in the face of U.S. pressure.
It remained unclear if the slowdown constituted a formal moratorium or how long it would last, but the move reflected Netanyahu's need to mend a serious rift with the U.S. over Israeli construction on lands the Palestinians claim for a future state as Washington tries to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
An Israeli government official claimed a weekslong delay in reviewing plans for new construction was nothing more than a bureaucratic issue. Nonetheless, signs of the freeze drew angry criticism from hard-line lawmakers, including a member of Netanyahu's own party who warned the government could collapse over the matter.
Construction in east Jerusalem has been a major sticking point since Israel infuriated Washington last month by announcing a major new east Jerusalem housing development during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Jerusalem Councilman Meir Margalit of the dovish Meretz Party said top Jerusalem officials intimately involved with construction projects told him that Netanyahu's office ordered a freeze after Washington expressed anger over the building plans.
"The government ordered the Interior Ministry immediately after the Biden incident to not even talk about new construction for Jewish homes in east Jerusalem," Margalit said. "It's not just that building has stopped: The committees that deal with this are not even meeting anymore."
He declined to identify the officials who informed him of the order because they had not approved the disclosure of their names. A Jerusalem municipal spokesman did not immediately return a call seeking interviews with the officials.
Another councilman, Meir Turujamen, who sits on the Interior Ministry committee that approves building plans, said his panel has not met since the Biden visit, after previously meeting once weekly.
"I wrote a letter about three weeks or a month ago asking (Interior Minister Eli) Yishai why the committee isn't convening," he said. "To this day I haven't received an answer."
Turujamen added that the last time his committee met was on March 9, when it made the provocative decision to approve the 1,600-apartment Ramat Shlomo project that riled the Americans.
He said he received no official word of a de facto freeze order, "but based on the situation, those are the facts. We used to meet once a week, and now for several months we haven't met. It's clear there's an order."
After word of the Ramat Shlomo project got out, the Palestinians called off indirect U.S.-mediated peace talks. Under American pressure, Palestinian leaders will seek backing this week from the Arab League to renew participation in those talks.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he has not heard anything official about an Israeli construction freeze in east Jerusalem. "What counts for us is what we'll be seeing on the ground," he said. "We hope the Israeli government will halt settlement activity so we can give proximity talks the chance they deserve."
Attempts to advance construction haven't halted altogether. A lower-level municipal planning committee last week gave preliminary approval to a synagogue and kindergarten in a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem, he said. But that decision still needs Interior Ministry approval.
An engineer who oversees residential construction in a Jewish neighborhood in east Jerusalem said requests for proposals to build hundreds of apartments already approved haven't gone out. "I think it's related to the political situation," he said, adding that he knew of no official order to block construction.
The engineer spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to jeopardize his business ties with the city.
Netanyahu has said he was taken by surprise by the approval of the Ramat Shlomo project while Biden was here, and aides announced that he would make sure he would be kept in the loop in the future before any decisions were taken on controversial construction.
But he also has repeatedly stated he would not freeze construction.
Asked about Margalit's claim that a freeze order was in effect, government spokesman Mark Regev replied: "Following the Biden visit and the mishap, the prime minister asked that a mechanism be put in place to prevent a recurrence of this kind of debacle."
He would not elaborate, and stopped short of saying Netanyahu had ordered a freeze.
Interior Ministry spokeswoman Efrat Orbach said this mechanism explained why planning committee meetings were being delayed, because now multiple ministries had to be involved in the coordination.
"There is no freeze, there is bureaucracy," Orbach said.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, the site of sacred shrines holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians, in the 1967 Middle East war and immediately annexed it. Some 180,000 Israelis now live in Jewish neighborhoods built there in the past four decades, and about 2,000 more live in the heart of traditionally Arab neighborhoods.
The Palestinians, the U.S. and the rest of the international community do not recognize the annexation.
The hawkish Netanyahu, however, has said repeatedly that east Jerusalem will remain under Israeli sovereignty in any peace deal, a position the Palestinians reject. Most of the partners in his hardline coalition have publicly opposed sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians or freezing construction in east Jerusalem.
Netanyahu huddled with members of his Likud Party on Monday and denied any freeze was in place, said Danny Danon, a lawmaker who attended the meeting.
"If we see there is a freeze, we will not sit quietly and the prime minister knows that," he said. "This coalition will not allow the prime minister to freeze building in Jerusalem."
Also Monday, Israeli troops killed a wanted Palestinian militant in a raid on a West Bank house. The body of the man, identified by relatives as Hamas activist Ali Sweiti, was carried out of the badly damaged building.
The Israeli army said Sweiti was wanted in five shooting attacks, one of which killed a paramilitary policeman in 2004. The army said he was killed after he refused calls to surrender and opened fire at soldiers.
Associated Press writer Ian Deitch contributed to this report.
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