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Israel Announces Massive Cutback in Housing Plans for Territories

In the latest indication of the new government’s dramatic shift in priorities, Israel has announced deep cuts in its housing program, scrapping plans to build more than 6,000 units in the administered territories.

The decision was announced at a crowded news conference Thursday by Finance Minister Avraham Shohat and Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, who said there could be further cuts in the future.

In all, some 10,000 planned housing units will not be built, nearly 70 percent of which are in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They include 3,545 units in the territories for which contracts have been signed but construction has not begun, as well as 3,136 units in the territories that are only in the planning stages.

But work will continue on some 8,781 housing units in the territories that are already under construction.

The ministers also announced that work would be halted immediately on major road-building projects in the territories. Shohat spoke of “political roads,” coining a new term in the political lexicon.

He said the government would save hundreds of millions of shekels in the decision to cease work on such highways as the “Trans-Samaria Route” and the “Nablus Bypass.”

But the two ministers said that construction of homes and roads in the Jerusalem area would continue, most likely including an ambitious plan to build a major highway linking Jerusalem to the Etzion Bloc of settlements that bypasses the Arab city of Bethlehem.

SHARP CRITICISM FROM SHAMIR

The government’s announcement drew stinging criticism from the right wing of the political spectrum, led by former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir himself, who said that scrapping housing plans in the territories is tantamount to ceding these areas to the Palestinians.

Shamir said that even the new government had purported to be negotiating an interim settlement with the Palestinians, not a settlement in which the final status of the territories would be decided. Yet the government is effectively making territorial concessions, he said, which is premature even by the Labor Party’s own standards.

Shamir said he was confident that the people would reject what he called a dangerous policy.

Leaders of the settlement movement referred to the government policy as a “White Paper,” a reference to the British Mandate government’s notorious policy from the late 1930s that limited land purchases by Jews in Palestine.

But the settlers said they would refrain from demonstrating against the policy until they had studied it in detail.

Yehiel Leiter, a spokesman for the Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea and Samaria, said lawyers would be commissioned to petition the High Court of Justice on the grounds that citizens’ rights had been prejudiced by the government’s decision.

Leiter said the settlers would also step up their fund raising and advocacy campaign in the United States, through their Israel Community Development Foundation. Israel, he charged, has “sold the birthright” for ephemeral promises from the American government.

Education Minister Shulamit Aloni of the left-wing Meretz bloc welcomed the government action, saying she hoped Israelis would see the financial benefits as early as September, in the form of longer school days and more classroom building.

In the new order of priorities, she said, education must rise to the top of the list.

Shohat stressed that apart from direct savings, the building cutback would mean that the government’s commitments to buy up empty apartments built by private builders would now be reduced.

There are areas, he said, where over-building has already left thousands of empty apartments, paid for by the taxpayer. For instance, in Ofakim, the Negev township with the highest unemployment rate in the nation, some 4,000 flats stand empty.

The money saved will go in part to boost job creation, which, Shohat said, is the key to re-energizing aliyah from the republics of the former Soviet Union.

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