Expansion of Vatican-owned East Jerusalem Hotel Stalled Over 'anti-Semitism' Claims

Owners refuse to recognize Israeli sovereignty, fly the flag, Likud councilman told municipal planning committee

The Notre Dame Center hotel, a landmark of East Jerusalem, September 9, 2019
Olivier Fitoussi

Plans to build an extension onto an East Jerusalem hotel owned by the Vatican have stalled following opposition from a Jerusalem city councilman, who claims that the hotel management is anti-Semitic.

Elisha Peleg, the Likud-affiliated councilman, made it clear he was not referring to the Vatican itself, but said that the hotel management does not recognize Israel and refuses to fly the Israeli flag. The Vatican and Israel have full diplomatic relations.

Peleg’s opposition to the plan came two weeks ago at a meeting of the local Jerusalem planning and building committee and was initially reported by the Jerusalem weekly Yedioth Yerushalayim.

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Senior Roman Catholic Church officials condemned Peleg’s conduct and said they would weigh their options and appeal to Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon to resolve the issue.

The hotel, the Notre Dame Center, is a well-known landmark opposite the New Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City. The management of the hotel submitted a plan about four years ago to build a new hotel wing that would include 145 guest rooms. The plan received the support of the local and district planning committees, subject to changes that they requested, and has now been brought before the local committee again.

The city engineer and other professionals recommended granting approval for the plan, but at the beginning of the hearing two weeks ago, Peleg asked for permission to speak. “I strongly oppose approving the building addition. This hotel is an anti-Semitic hotel. It’s a hotel that doesn’t recognize Israeli sovereignty,” he said. “It’s a hotel that is not prepared to have Jews work there or to reside there. It’s a racist hotel.”

Jerusalem council member Elisha Peleg speaking during a Likud party meeting, Jerusalem, 2018
Olivier Fitoussi

The members of the planning committee expressed amazement at the councilman’s stance and told him that approval of construction cannot be denied on such a basis. But Peleg, who is a former legal adviser to the Be’er Sheva Municipality, refused to relent, turning to Councilman Yehuda Freudiger of Habayit Hayehudi, who had been considering supporting the plan.

“Yehuda, are you voting for this?” he asked. “I’ll tell on you.” Peleg also pressed committee members from ultra-Orthodox parties to block approval of the expansion. Against the wishes of the committee chairman, Eliezer Rauchberger of the ultra-Orthodox Degel Hatorah faction, the plans were rejected by a 3-2 vote. A  then ensued over how the decision should be explained.

“I don’t understand what is this foolishness,” Councilman Yovav Tzur of the Hitorerut faction said for the record. He was countered by Peleg, who said it involves anti-Semites. “The reasoning is that the applicants are racists. They’re anti-Semites. They’re Jew-haters. They boycott us,” Peleg said. “They don’t recognize us and we don’t recognize them … and because they want another building, we won’t lend them assistance.”

After Rauchberger warned Peleg that he was showing contempt for the committee, Peleg said: “We humiliate ourselves when we allow those who hate us to control us right under our noses.”

On Tuesday, Peleg told Haaretz that his use of the term anti-Semitic was not appropriate, but insisted, “They are racist and don’t love Jews, to put it mildly.” Peleg said his opposition was sparked by a 2011 incident in connection with a race that he organized that ended at the hotel. The hotel’s representatives, he said, refused to fly the Israeli flag in their auditorium. “I told them, ‘without a flag, there’s no event.”

The councilman said they ultimately agreed to place the flag at the side.

“It’s an emotional rather than legal reason, but I told the committee that we would put it aside and would speak about it to the historic preservation committee. They presented a new plan and it needs to again be considered by the preservation committee.”

The case has been referred to the preservation committee.