Building plans in east Jerusalem on hold

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been forced to intervene in Jerusalem's building plans to prevent another diplomatic row with America.

On Tuesday, Mr Netanyahu asked Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to put on hold his plan to demolish 22 houses in the Silwan neighbourhood of east Jerusalem and build a tourism complex in their place.

Mr Barkat had announced his plan earlier that day at a press conference in City Hall. According to the plan, 22 buildings in Silwan which were built without planning permission will be demolished to make way for a series of parks, hotels and restaurants.

According to Mr Barkat, some 60 other illegal buildings in the neighbourhood will be legalised and a new community centre and school will be built for the local citizens.

The plan was greeted with opposition by the residents of Silwan, who claim that they have found it impossible to receive planning permits from City Hall.

Mr Barkat has recently come under pressure from the Attorney General's office to seal off a building in Silwan, Beit Yehonatan, in which a number of Jewish settler families live, which was built without planning permission. The mayor has tried to avoid carrying out the court order to seal the building but has been threatened with a contempt of court order.

As part of his plan for Silwan, Beit Yehonatan will also be legalised and some have connected the timing of his statement to the need to resolve the Beit Yehonatan issue.

A statement put out by the Prime Minister's Office said that Mr Netanyahu had told the mayor that "there are those who are trying to cause strife and project, in Israel and abroad, a false and warped picture of reality" but that more work had to be done to present the plans in a way that would not cause diplomatic and security problems.

Mr Netanyahu is anxious to avert another crisis between his government and the Obama administration, which has been very critical of new Israeli building projects in east Jerusalem. At the same time he does not want to be seen by the Israeli public as unsupportive of the Jewish presence in the disputed part of the capital.

Another diplomatic dispute over building in Jerusalem arose this week over the decision by the district planning committee to authorise a plan to build 600 new homes in the northeast neighbourhood of Pisgat Zeev. A senior official at the State Department in Washington said that the administration had "voiced [its] concern" to the Israeli government over a step that "harms trust between the sides" at a time when the Americans are still trying to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to new peace talks.

    Last updated: 4:58pm, March 4 2010