Developer vows to begin eastern Jerusalem project

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JERUSALEM — Construction will soon begin at a controversial Jewish housing project in eastern Jerusalem, according to the Miami millionaire funding the development.

A major supporter of Jewish settlement in eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank, Dr. Irving Moskowitz also said he does not believe that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will intervene to halt construction.

Attempts by Moskowitz and his supporters to build Jewish homes in Jerusalem's mostly Arab neighborhood of Ras al-Amud have been a repeated source of strain between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli construction plans for another contested site — Har Homa in southeastern Jerusalem — led the Palestinian Authority in March 1997 to halt negotiations with Israel. A subsequent Hamas terrorist attack further soured the atmosphere and the talks were ultimately suspended for 18 months.

Moskowitz financed the excavation of a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem's Old City. The opening of that entrance in September 1996 sparked three days of Palestinian rioting in which 15 Israelis and 61 Palestinians were killed.

During a tour Wednesday of the site where he plans to build 132 housing units, Moskowitz said he discussed the project during a meeting this week with Netanyahu.

"We have the permits to build, and he understands it. And he understands that the rule of law will determine the development — and that the rule of law applies to this property," Moskowitz told reporters.

Netanyahu halted the project in September 1997, in the face of pressure from the United States.

But faced with an upcoming election in which he needs the support of the right wing, Netanyahu may now be rethinking his position.

Moskowitz, who made his fortune owning hospitals and running a California bingo hall, came to Israel this week with a delegation of American Jewish businessmen in a bid to get Israel's fractious right wing to unify in advance of the elections.

Moskowitz's status as a champion of Jewish settlements was affirmed when he visited Hebron on Wednesday. Children danced while settlers sang nationalist songs to welcome Moskowitz to the often volatile West Bank town.