Ras al-Amud - Emil Salman
The former police compound in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ras al-Amud. Photo by Emil Salman
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Tomer Appelbaum
Ariel Atias Photo by Tomer Appelbaum

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have a public policy of construction in the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, however in practice, the construction of 2,500 housing units there is being blocked for political reasons, according to Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias (Shas).

Atials said the block on East Jerusalem construction was difficult "due to the prime minister's pledge to the Americans that there will be no more planning surprises, especially after the incident which occurred during the visit to Israel last year of the U.S. vice president."

Atias was interviewed for the holiday edition of the ultra-Orthodox magazine Mishpacha (Family), and spoke of the real estate crisis in Israel.

"Since I assumed my ministry, there were at least 5,000 housing units ready to market beyond the Green Line which we did not put on the market, and another 2,500 in Jerusalem that is called East, in other words, 7,500 housing units that could have been sold at that time. This is another important obstacle we are confronted with," he said.

The apartments that Atias referred to as ready to be marketed have passed through all stages of required planning, and now the Housing Ministry needs to publish tenders for contractors to build them.

The statement made by Atias represents the first time a senior Israeli figure discusses the existence of a de facto freeze in construction in East Jerusalem - a policy that runs contrary to the public stance of the prime minister. To date, all delays have been attributed to technical and not political causes.

In March 2010 Netanyahu said that "construction in Jerusalem is like construction in Tel Aviv." In April 2010 he said during an interview on Channel 2 that "there will be no [construction] freeze in Jerusalem."

In May 2010 Netanyahu promised on Jerusalem Day at the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva that "the struggle for Jerusalem is the struggle for truth. We are building it, and we will continue to build it up and we will continue to develop it."

In October 2010, following the publication of tenders for the construction of 232 housing units, sources at the prime minister's bureau stated that "it has been said in the past that there is no freeze in Jerusalem." In November 2010, the PM's bureau announced that "the stance that there is no freeze in Jerusalem is clear and uncompromising."

In the background stands Atias the politician. During the past two years Atias has been giving many interviews to Haredi media outlets on the issue of housing, a subject that holds a central place in the ultra-Orthodox discourse because of the high prices of real estate and congestion in Haredi cities. His comments nearly always draw favorable comments.

Criticism comes from the ranks of the rival Haredi party, United Torah Judaism, who say that his plans and statements have not affected the situation.

Atias confirmed on Friday to Haaretz that he was properly quoted in the magazine. "The facts are correct, and it is unfortunate that I do not see things changing in a substantive way," he said.

Atias said the freeze on construction in the territories is an especially big problem for the ultra-Orthodox population, which he says "were sent by previous governments to live in the settlements even though they were not settlers [in spirit]."

The Prime Minister's Office declined to comment.