Another East Jerusalem project gets OK

Another controversial housing project in East Jerusalem has received approval to break ground despite strong U.S. objections, officials said Wednesday.

The 20-unit project, funded by U.S. businessman Irving Moskowitz, cleared its chief planning hurdles in July but received the final go-ahead March 18, when the developer paid project fees to the city, officials said.

Some speculated that the timing of the fee payment and the subsequent announcement -- which occurred Tuesday as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepared to meet President Obama at the White House -- seemed designed to exploit recent U.S.-Israeli tensions over Jewish expansion in East Jerusalem. City officials denied any political motivations.

“This process is apolitical and professional,” said Stephan Miller, spokesman for Jerusalem’s mayor.

He said that the project received its primary approval last summer and that last week’s permit issuance was largely “technical” and “automatic” after payment of the fee.

Jerusalem officials accused critics of attempting to “stir up provocation during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit in Washington,” according to a statement from the municipality.

News of the project broke Tuesday night on the Israeli news website Ynet. The approval was also posted on a government website.

The plan calls for 20 Jewish-owned apartments on the site of the former Shepherd Hotel in the Palestinian-dominated neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah.

Last year, American officials pressured Israel to halt the project, which they said would undermine attempts to restart peace talks with Palestinians. Israel refused, defending its right to build in all parts of Jerusalem.

U.S. officials said Wednesday that American opposition to the project has not changed. A White House spokesman said the U.S. is seeking “clarification” from Israel about the project but declined to say whether it was discussed during the meeting between Netanyahu and Obama.

Israel’s construction on land it seized after the 1967 Middle East War has caused a rift with the Obama administration. During Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel this month, the government’s approval of a 1,600-unit project in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood was perceived by U.S. officials as an “insult.”

Netanyahu, who is in Washington this week, partly in an attempt to heal the relationship, was reportedly unaware of the Shepherd Hotel approval.

The prime minister has also said he was surprised by the Ramat Shlomo announcement.

“If Netanyahu is serious about the peace process, he needs to make sure all the corners are covered so he’s not embarrassed by the bureaucracy,” said Hagit Ofran, spokeswoman for Peace Now, an antisettlement group.

Netanyahu formed a committee this month to search for better ways to monitor sensitive projects in Jerusalem.