JERUSALEM — A month after the Obama administration asked Israel to clarify its position on controversial settlement-building projects in East Jerusalem, Israeli officials openly disagree with developers about whether there's a freeze.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat have said publicly that there's no freeze in Jerusalem construction, but developers on the ground say there's been a "change in atmosphere" regarding settlement projects.
"We are running into problems in places where we didn't used to. There is suddenly red tape and holdups. The municipality is making it very hard for us and asking us to be quiet about it," said Aryeh King, the founder of the Israel Land Fund and a well-known activist on behalf of Jewish projects in East Jerusalem.
"We are working behind their backs and, God willing, we will continue to build regardless of what Netanyahu or the Americans say."
King said that settler groups were stepping up efforts to purchase and expand Jewish homes in East Jerusalem, the portion of the city that Palestinians want to make the capital of their future state.
Despite what he calls "negative persuasion" from the Jerusalem municipality to wait until the diplomatic crisis with the U.S. has passed, pro-settler groups are finding ways to continue expanding Jewish housing in Arab neighborhoods across the city.
Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967, and under international law, Jewish homes there are considered illegal settlement construction. While the Israeli government has agreed to a partial freeze on settlements in the West Bank, officials maintain that Jerusalem constitutes a "special status" and that Jewish construction across the city will continue unabated.
Palestinians have said a freeze in settlement construction is a precondition to any peace talks, though chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has suggested that Palestinians would accept a "quiet" or de facto freeze rather than an official statement. The United States has been eager to begin mediating proximity, or indirect, talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders to relaunch broader peace negotiations.
Speaking in Washington, Barkat denied that there was any kind of slowdown in Jewish housing in East Jerusalem.
"There is no freeze," he said. "There is building going on. There will be building going on."
Barkat said that there had been a brief slowdown in approvals of building permits due to "shock" over the Obama administration's protests last month that followed the announcement of the construction of new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Israel.
"The municipality was shaken by the American demands. When you get two slaps in the face, you stop and think," he said. "I think we had to recover."
In Jerusalem, Vice Mayor Yitzchak Pindrus dismissed reports that the Jerusalem municipality's planning committee hadn't met since the row with the U.S. began.
"I don't think there is anyone in the world that could stop us from building in Jerusalem. Not even the United States," he said.
While the government's planning committee had halted meetings to "re-evaluate the mistake" that led to the announcement of 1,600 new settler homes during Biden's visit, the municipality's separate planning committee had continued meeting.
"In that committee they are re-evaluating how not to make mistakes of public relations like that again. But nowhere are they going to stop building because of someone's mood," Pindrus said.
The fourth floor of Jerusalem's municipal building, where contractors go to submit projects and receive permits, was quiet this week, though none of the clerks there were willing to discuss the politics behind their desks.
One member of the municipal planning committee who said he'd been involved in approving construction in East Jerusalem in the past said that there was "pressure to be quietly sensitive in the municipality."
"There are lots of ways to slow down projects. When it comes to planning and development there is always a lot of red tape. That tape can come up or down according to politics," he said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters.
Officials in Netanyahu's office stressed that the prime minister sees "eye to eye" with the Americans and has been in serious discussions with them over the East Jerusalem housing issue and proceeding with peace talks.
American mediators are aware of the pressures Netanyahu is facing from right-wing elements in his coalition.
Netanyahu also faces a threat from within his Likud Party. Far-right elements in the Likud led by Moshe Feiglin have tried to steer the party toward a more radical line and pressure the prime minister to openly oppose any concessions to the Palestinians.
"Netanyahu is a politician, and he is facing a lot of pressure now from the right. He is trying to play nice with everyone, but sooner or later he will have to unravel this web of conflicting stories he has spun," King said. "Either he supports construction in the settlements — openly and completely — or he gives in to the Americans. Right now, nobody is getting a clear or honest answer."
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington.)
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