A Jerusalem city councilman said Monday there has been a "direct order" against building in East Jerusalem ever since U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel last month.
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has openly rejected U.S. calls for Israel to freeze construction in East Jerusalem, which is mostly populated by Arab residents, the councilman said that behind the scenes, officials work to avoid steps that "may upset the Americans."
"Since the day Biden came here, there is a direct order not to permit Jewish building in East Jerusalem until further announcement," said Councilman Meir Margalit of the left-leaning Meretz Party.
"At the Interior Ministry, all meetings of the Regional Committee for Planning and Building have been suspended," Margalit said. Officials avoid discussing Jewish building in any part of Jerusalem including in the West, because Interior Minister Eli Yishai "does not want to come across as someone who doesn't build in East Jerusalem," said Margalit.
He added that at the Jerusalem municipality meetings, the agenda is checked every day, and "if anything may upset the Americans, they remove it from the agenda immediately. All of this was ordered orally, not in writing. The Interior Ministry would deny this, and that would be unequivocally false. This has been going on ever since Biden came here.
"At the same time, there are no house demolitions in East Jerusalem - this is a PM (prime minister) order. We hope for this to continue."
A spokeswoman for the Construction and Planning Committee of the Interior Ministry told CNN that she knows nothing about a construction freeze. She said there has been increased ministerial oversight of procedures that govern construction in East Jerusalem, and said projects take longer as a result. She also said the committee has not held meetings lately due to holidays.
A spokesman for Netanyahu told CNN the prime minister has made clear "we will not accept the Palestinian claim for building freeze in Jerusalem."
Neither the ministry nor the prime minister's office confirmed any suggestion of a de facto or behind-the-scenes freeze on construction.
Israel's announcement last month that it would build new homes in East Jerusalem coincided with Biden's visit, sparking criticisms from the White House and sparking an international row between the two allies. Since then, the Obama administration has repeatedly called for a halt to construction in the disputed area, which Palestinians wish to make the capital of a Palestinian state. Obama and other officials have said halting the construction is a key step toward peace efforts.
Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have repeatedly rejected those demands. Netanyahu has said Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and that construction has gone on under every administration. He said the construction does not hurt Arabs and is not an obstacle to restarting a peace process.
- CNN's Guy Azriel and Kevin Flower contributed to this report.