Jerusalem cancels vote on settlement construction

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A general view taken on December 28, 2016 shows buildings in Ramat Shlomo, a Jewish settlement in the mainly Palestinian eastern sector of Jerusalem. / AFP / AHMAD GHARABLI (Photo credit should read AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)

The city of Jerusalem canceled a vote Wednesday to approve the construction of 492 units — such as homes, synagogues and other public buildings — in East Jerusalem, a city council member said.

The decision follows a request from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said council member Hanan Rubin, who’s also a member of the city’s zoning committee.

It comes days after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. It also comes as US Secretary of State John Kerry prepares to give a speech on the Obama administration’s vision for Middle East peace.

“The municipality regards housing in Jerusalem as a municipal need rather than a political action, and therefore there is no need to vote on this on a sensitive day when John Kerry is to give a speech,” Rubin said. “We don’t want to be a part of a political controversy.”

The reason behind Netanyahu’s call for the city council’s vote to be canceled remains unclear.

He could perhaps have been responding to criticism from within his own party that he had gone too far in his battle of words with US President Barack Obama. Alternatively, he may have wanted to build a little goodwill, hours ahead of Kerry’s speech at the State Department in Washington.

The vote could still come before the city council’s zoning committee in the future.

Mayor: Kerry ‘a stain’ on foreign policy
The mayor of an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, Oded Revivi, didn’t hold back from blasting America’s top diplomat ahead of his address.

“John Kerry is a stain on American foreign policy who is ignorant of the issues. He has chosen to eternalize his legacy as the worst secretary of state in history that chose to stab his closest ally in the back while rivers of blood flowed like water across the Middle East,” said Revivi, mayor of Efrat and chief foreign envoy of the YESHA Council, an umbrella organization that represents an estimated 430,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

“I can personally attest to the fact that he knows very little about the realities in Judea and Samaria and instead chooses to defame us from afar by repeating fictitious mantras against us,” Revivi added.

In Hebrew, YESHA stands for Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. Judea and Samaria is the biblical term for the West Bank, often used by Israeli politicians. Gaza is still included as a holdover from before Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

Frayed relations
Kerry’s speech comes at a time of frayed relations between the US and Israel following the Obama administration’s controversial decision to abstain from Friday’s UN Security Council vote.

Kerry — who has less than a month left in office — said at the time that he would, in the coming days, “share more detailed thoughts, drawn from the experience of the last several years, on the way ahead.”

On Sunday, Netanyahu summoned the US ambassador to Israel and launched a scathing attack on the Obama administration after its refusal to veto the UN Security Council resolution.

US President-elect Donald Trump also called on the Obama administration to wield its veto.

Follow-up action?
While the resolution passed Friday is non-binding, Israel is concerned that there may be follow-up action at the United Nations — specifically, a resolution that would set conditions for negotiations.

Such a resolution would issue parameters for some of the most sensitive issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including borders, the status of Jerusalem as a contested capital, Palestinian refugees, and a time limit for negotiations.

An international peace conference in Paris scheduled for January 15 could be the forum for discussing such a resolution. That would give the international community time to introduce the resolution at the UN Security Council before the end of Obama’s time in office.

Israel has vowed not to attend the conference. The Palestinians say they will attend.

Settlement building in the occupied West Bank is considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this. The United States considers settlements “illegitimate” and “an obstacle to peace.”