WASHINGTON - There is no construction freeze in East Jerusalem, Mayor Nir Barkat told reporters after a meeting with Republican congressmen in Washington this week.
"There's no freeze," Barkat told Haaretz. "The strategy remains the same. In fact, I think Israelis were pretty stunned by the demand for a freeze. It was like - hold on, what's going on here? There was naturally a postponement of certain processes, but now we're back to normal life and business as usual."
"We're going to build, and we're not going to stop it," the mayor continued. "It's illegal to stop it, and we're going to keep doing what's right and what's best for the city of Jerusalem."
Barkat's visit coincided with that of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who sought to maintain a good working atmosphere in his own meetings with top-ranking American officials.
Barkat also denied that a new process had been put in place to control building permits in the city, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ordered to avoid embarrassments like the one caused by the approval of construction in East Jerusalem's Ramat Shlomo neighborhood during Vice President Joe Biden's visit in March.
"About the planning process - I've no problem sharing my thoughts with the government and getting their input, but we're not reporting to the prime minister," Barkat said. "It doesn't work like that. Each of us has his own authority and his own decisions to make. These are our decisions. I'll be more than happy to align our interests, but I won't go beyond that.
"There's no new process. It's the same process, and you've got to understand it's not every day a mayor gets a campaign like that waged by the American administration, okay? So naturally it took the Israeli government and ourselves some time to check what's going on here, out of respect for the American administration. And now we're back on track."
Minority whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) said there was a similarity between the Jerusalem issue and sanctions against Iran: There is bipartisan support for both sanctions and a united Jerusalem, "in contrast" to the approach emanating from the White House, he said.
Cantor said this reflected the true state of relations between the United States and its closest ally, and that Israel's supporters in both parties were amazed by the emphasis the current administration had placed on Jerusalem - especially considering the greater regional challenges faced by Israel and the U.S., and the existential threat posed by Iran.
Next week, the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee will meet for the first time since its decision on Ramat Shlomo prompted a crisis in Israeli-American relations. Two meetings have been scheduled, for Tuesday and Thursday.
But contrary to Barkat's claim, the Interior Ministry has received instructions on how to avoid a similar faux pas from a panel of ministry directors general appointed by Netanyahu.
The building committee's agenda does not list any controversial plans for extensive Jewish construction in East Jerusalem. However, smaller plans for expanding Jewish neighborhoods beyond the Green Line - and also Jewish enclaves within Palestinian neighborhoods of the city - will be presented for its consideration.
What remains unclear is what the committee will do with such proposals - especially given that following the spat with Washington, all planning work related to the committee's agenda was effectively canceled. This move was described as hysterical by several architects, who pointed out that plans in West Jerusalem, which bear no risk of international outrage, were also halted.