Jerusalem's mayor on Tuesday denied any formal or informal freeze in Jewish housing construction in the traditionally Arab eastern part of the city, in comments that may complicate the Obama administration's attempts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Mayor Nir Barkat told reporters in Washington that reports of a de-facto halt to building Jewish homes in east Jerusalem were wrong. He said construction will continue after a temporary slowdown in approvals caused by Israeli shock at US criticism of plans for new homes there announced last month during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden.
He also said he could not accept Palestinian control of any portion of the city, likening such a move to putting an Arab "Trojan horse" into the middle of a predominantly Jewish community. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state and Barkat's tough stance is likely to cause anger throughout the Arab world.
His comments came a day after local officials in Jerusalem said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had effectively frozen new Jewish construction in east Jerusalem in an apparent bid to ease US-Israeli tension sparked by the March housing announcement and boost chances for starting indirect talks between the two sides.
Netanyahu has not commented publicly on the claims but Barkat denied them.
"There is no freeze," the mayor said at a dinner organized by the pro-Israel group The Israel Project after talks with US lawmakers on Capitol Hill. "It's not true."
Barkat's local government administers the long-term planning for Jerusalem's growth, which he said had not changed. He added that he foresees the city's population growing from 800,000 to 1 million in 10 years, keeping a 65-35 percent ratio between Jewish and Palestinian residents. The plan calls for more homes for Jews and Arabs in east Jerusalem and will not change, he said.
'Takes time to recover from attack from friend'
He said accounts of even an unofficial construction suspension in east Jerusalem due to American pressure were incorrect and based on a misinterpretation of a slowdown in housing approvals following the furor that erupted during Biden's visit. He said the slowdown was the result of Israeli shock at being "slapped in the face" by the US.
"It takes some time for to recover from such an attack from a friend like the US administration," Barkat said. He said local and district commissions that oversee housing approvals had begun to meet after a brief hiatus, adding: "You cannot stop a vibrant and living city like Jerusalem from growing."
The US has been calling for a freeze to help restart the stalled peace process, but Barkat was adamant. "If they are recommending a freeze, the answer is no," he said.
His blunt remarks come at a delicate time as President Barack Obama tries to launch indirect talks with his special Mideast envoy George Mitchell serving as a shuttling mediator between the two sides.
Mitchell, who was just in the region attempting to get those proximity talks started, is due to return next week and there had been expectations that an announcement of those talks could come then. Both sides have indicated a willingness to get back to the negotiating table, but Barkat's comments about Jerusalem could inflame Palestinian and broader Arab sentiment.
Barkat ruled out making east Jerusalem the capital of a future Palestinian state, saying he was not prepared to be flexible on the matter even if it could lead to a peace deal. He said Israel must have sovereignty over a united Jerusalem.
He said he could imagine a Palestinian embassy in Jerusalem once the Palestinians get a state but no governmental offices with any national or municipal authority.