Israel Approves Extending Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Line to Western Wall, Over Experts’ Objections

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich exerted heavy pressure on the committee to accept the plan, several sources say

Former Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (right) and current Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich inaugurate the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem train line, December 12, 2019.
Emil Salman

The government has approved a plan on Monday to extend the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem train line to the Western Wall, under pressure from Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich of the far-right Yamina alliance – and despite objections from planning professionals.

Several planning officials said the chances of the extension actually being built are virtually nil. However, the decision, made by the National Infrastructure Committee, means a lot of money will now be invested in preparing detailed plans for it.

The extension would run from the existing train station at the entrance to Jerusalem through two other stops in the city – one downtown and one near the Khan Theatre, which is southwest of the Old City. From there, it would run underground for several hundred meters, culminating in an underground station to be built near the Old City’s Dung Gate.

The committee’s professional staff worried that this final leg would do damage to archaeology, tourism and the preservation of the Old City. For instance, planning officials said it would be better for Jerusalem’s economy if people were not able to go straight from Tel Aviv to the Western Wall, but had to spend some time moving around the capital instead.

The last leg could also endanger the flow of water in the Gihon Spring, which is an important historical, archaeological and religious site as well as Jerusalem’s largest body of water, according to a report submitted by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

When the National Infrastructure Committee first discussed the plan last June, it rejected the final leg, approving the line only as far as the Khan Theatre. But according to several sources, Smotrich exerted heavy pressure on the committee to reconsider this decision.

With Monday’s decision, the entire Jerusalem extension will only be built if the Western Wall leg is included. Otherwise, the line will stop at the entrance to the city, as it does today.

The entire extension was originally proposed by former Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz; in his plan, the final stop was supposed to be inside the Old City. But the Antiquities Authority objected, so the station is now slated to be outside the Old City walls, between the Dung Gate and the City of David.

Illustration of the cable car crossing over the Silwan neighborhood in East Jerusalem.

Smotrich praised the committee’s decision, saying the current shortage of public transportation to the Wall is unacceptable.

But the train extension is the third plan underway to improve this situation. The cabinet approved a plan to build a cable car to the Western Wall four months ago, though it’s now being challenged in court. And a plan to extend Jerusalem’s light rail system to the Wall is also advancing.