Fearing a Biden Settlement Freeze, Jerusalem Expedites Construction Beyond Green Line

As vice president, Biden had a key role in suspending new construction in parts of the city over the Green Line. Officials are now speeding up approvals before he enters the Oval Office

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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U.S. President-elect Joe Biden smiles as he speaks at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, November 10, 2020.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden smiles as he speaks at his transition headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware, November 10, 2020.Credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Jerusalem City Hall and the Israel Lands Authority have been identifying and expediting approval of building plans of construction beyond the Green Line over the next two months, to prevent them from being stopped once Joe Biden enters the White House in January. Once the administration in Washington changes, the municipality and the Lands Authority expect a construction freeze.

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Biden had an important role in the building freeze in Jerusalem during the administration of Barack Obama. In 2010 he visited Israel as vice president. A short time after he had a festive dinner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Jerusalem regional planning and building committee released an announcement of a plan to build 1,800 new housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood north of the capital, over the Green Line.

Biden and senior Obama administration officials were furious about the announcement and saw it as a humiliation of Biden, who was trying to promote the renewal of the peace talks with the Palestinians. As a result, a serious diplomatic crisis broke out with the United States and for a number of years, construction over the Green Line in Jerusalem was frozen in practice. All sensitive construction plans required the approval of the Prime Minister’s Office, which didn’t grant it. When Donald Trump entered the White House four years ago, this construction was unfrozen. The Ramat Shlomo plan, which in the meantime earned the nickname “the Biden neighborhood,” was completed, and hundreds of other residential units were built in the Gilo, Pisgat Ze’ev and Har Homa neighborhoods, as well as in other places.

Recently, after the results of the U.S. presidential election became clear, officials in the city engineer’s office and the urban planning division in Jerusalem City Hall were instructed to speed up the approval of building plans beyond the Green Line out of fears that it would be much more difficult to approve them after the change of administrations. The large plans for construction for Jews over the Green Line include thousands of units in Givat Hamatos, Har Homa, Atarot and other neighborhoods.

A view of Givat Hamatos, JerusalemCredit: Olivier Fitoussi

One of the neighborhoods at the center of the clash with the Americans under Obama was Givat Hamatos. For the U.S. administration, this neighborhood was especially sensitive because it could block the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa from all sides – and in the opinion of many, would end any possibility of dividing Jerusalem in the future.

Even though the present administration has not imposed any limitations on Israel, the government has avoided building the new neighborhood in Givat Hamatos – in spite of an explicit commitment by Netanyahu on the matter. In February, the Lands Authority announced a bidding process for the start of construction in Givat Hamatos, but the publication of the pamphlet with the details of the process has been postponed three times since then.

The latest date it was supposed to be released was 10 days ago. Officials in city hall said the reason for the delay was not diplomatic but a disagreement between the city and the Housing Ministry and the Lands Authority over the funding for the infrastructure for the neighborhood. These officials said they expect the bid to be published before January 20, 2020 – the day Biden is to be sworn in as president.

Netanyahu has been attacked from the right for delaying the construction in Givat Hamatos and not taking advantage enough of Trump’s time in the White House to advance other plans in East Jerusalem. “The problem is Bibi, not Biden. He is the only guilty party in the construction freeze in Jerusalem,” said city council member Arieh King.

At the same time, the government is also being criticized for promoting this construction. The Netanyahu government is exploiting the last days of the Trump administration to quickly take action and prevent at any price a future peace arrangement, while cynically taking advantage of the change of administrations in the United States, said Aviv Tatarsky of the left-wing Ir Amim nonprofit.

The Jerusalem municipality said in response it was working vigorously to advance all construction projects throughout the city to increase the supply of residential housing units, employment and hotels in Jerusalem.

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