When we talk about developing Jerusalem and ensuring that it remains united under Jewish sovereignty, what could be more critical than actually building Jewish housing? Yet it is an open secret that the Netanyahu government has been waging a long-running general construction freeze in the Jewish areas of Judea and Samaria (Yesha), as well as in the liberated areas of Yerushalayim.
Former housing minister Ariel Attias recently made it quite clear: “A permanent freeze was in place in Yesha,” he said, “except for when they decided to let up; for instance, after the tragic incident in Itamar [when Palestinian terrorists brutally slaughtered Itamar residents Rabbi and Mrs. Fogel and three of their children in their home], and when Beit El’s Givat HaUlpena was destroyed, a few hundred housing units were approved.”
But in Jerusalem, when nothing out of the ordinary occurs, construction in neighborhoods such as Har Homa and Pisgat Ze’ev is simply not approved. For example, the Regional Planning Committee OK’d 1,500 new units in Ramat Shlomo – between Ramot and French Hill – over a half-year ago, subject to certain changes. The changes were submitted to the Interior Ministry six weeks ago. Since then – nothing. Army Radio reported that the relevant authorities in the ministry had received a directive straight from the Prime Minister’s Office not to approve the plan, because of the “diplomatic sensitivity.”
True, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has repeatedly reprimanded Israel for continuing to build in Yesha, no matter how slowly and insufficiently. But those of us who wish to see Jerusalem as Israel’s united and Jewish capital secured by Jewish population centers on all sides expect that Prime Minister Netanyahu will know how to respond.
We expect that he will tell Secretary Kerry: “What we want is a comprehensive solution – and it will come only via direct negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. We have been seeking this for years, only to be thwarted by the PA’s illogical and unjust ultimatum: ‘No construction or no peace talks.’ As if it’s only in our interest to have such talks!”
We expect that Netanyahu will continue: “Jewish construction is simply an excuse for the Palestinians. The PLO was established with the purpose of destroying Israel in 1964, well before Israel even controlled Judea and Samaria. Israel froze settlement building for three months after the Camp David treaty, hoping to entice other Arab entities to make peace with Israel – but they were not interested. The PA agreed to sign the Oslo Agreements in 1993 and 1995, even though Yesha was undergoing significant Jewish growth. My predecessors Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert said they would dismantle dozens of Jewish towns and give the PA control of some 95 percent of Yesha – but the PA refused.”
Netanyahu clearly remembers his own efforts to engage the PA in 2010, when he froze construction for ten painful months – and still, the PA refused to talk. “Jewish construction in Yesha was never linked to peace talks before then,” he should say, “so why now?”
He should demand of Mr. Kerry: “What possible justification is there to pressure us not to build in areas that everyone knows will never be transferred to Arab control, such as Jerusalem and settlement blocs?”
Finally, we would expect the prime minister to explain, “It is simply unjust to expect us to stop building in Yesha. Hundreds of thousands of Jews live there, and the harmful effects of a construction freeze extend into many areas of their lives. Are they to be expected to suffer while the PA dillies and dallies over peace talks?”
No doubt, Netanyahu has raised these points, as well as many others. But he seems to have capped them off with, “Despite all this, we won’t build, so that no one will blame us.”
We insist that he should replace that weak-kneed stance with this: “And that’s why we stand tall and proud for our historic and national rights to build homes for the myriads of Jews who have returned to their homeland, the one place where they belong and can feel safe.”
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We asked Jerusalem Municipal Councilman Yair Gabbai, a member of the Jerusalem Construction and Planning Committee, the status of construction in the capital. “Several important projects are simply stuck,” he answered, “meaning that they are just not being passed on to the next stage in the approval process.”
Asked for examples, he started reciting: “The IDF Colleges between Mt. Scopus and the Mt. of Olives…two small projects in the Shimon HaTzaddik neighborhood, as well as a large one there of 350 units…The 1,500 units in Ramat Shlomo, in addition to about 600 units on private property in northern Ramat Shlomo…Near Herod’s Gate, within the Old City walls, a project of 30 units is being held up…900 units in Gilo…”
“It’s important for U.S. Jewry to speak up and pressure our government,” Gabbai said, “to continue building Jerusalem intensively and widely. If not, the demographics will work against us – we’re losing some 8,000 Jerusalemites a year because of housing problems and we will risk losing the city.”
Former MK Yaakov Katz, who served as the Housing Ministry’s director-general under then-Housing Minister Ariel Sharon in the Shamir government, says housing prices in Jerusalem have risen by a frightening 24 percent since late last summer. The greater Jerusalem area, with its municipal population of over 800,000 and another few hundred thousand in the surrounding areas, is home to possibly 15 percent of the country’s population. “Is it any wonder, then,” he asked, “that housing prices throughout the country are skyrocketing?”
Katz noted that the haredi-religious sector alone registers 7,500 weddings a year – “and each one of them involves a new apartment as part of the deal.” True, Jerusalem registered a significant jump in building starts in the first quarter of 2013 – but not in the places or in the quantities that matter. Building a few hundred luxury apartments in downtown Jerusalem does not solve the problem. What must be done is to build expansively in the only areas of Jerusalem with plenty of room to build: those that were freed from Jordanian control during the Six-Day War.
Incidentally, recent scare headlines blaring of “176 percent Construction Growth in Yesha” need not fool us. The finer print in the reports tell us that there were only a minuscule 313 housing starts throughout Yesha in the last quarter of 2012, and that these “ballooned” to 865 in the next quarter – still very few for the 360,000 Jews living there.
What is needed is a meltdown of the construction freeze in Yesha and Jerusalem – and the quicker the better for all concerned.
Ways you can help keep Jerusalem Jewish and Israeli: Visit, organize parlor meetings and rallies, bring speakers to your synagogue, write letters to the editor or for a synagogue bulletin board – and take part in KeepJerusalem’s bus tours in news-making areas of Jerusalem. For information on these options, send an e-mail to email@example.com or visit the Keep Jerusalem-Im Eshkachech website at www.keepjerusalem.org.
About the Author: Chaim Silberstein is president of Keep Jerusalem-Im Eshkachech and the Jerusalem Capital Development Fund. He was formerly a senior adviser to Israel's minister of tourism. Hillel Fendel, past senior editor at Israel National News/Arutz-7, is a veteran writer on Jerusalem affairs. Both have lived in Jerusalem and now live in Beit El.
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