REPORTING FROM JERUSALEM — In a case that is testing the balance of power between Israel’s democratic institutions, the Supreme Court on Sunday rejected a government plea to postpone by three years the deadline to evacuate an unauthorized Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
Instead the court granted a four-month delay.
The ruling will likely torpedo a recent government agreement with settlers that would have circumvented the need for a forced eviction of about 50 religious families living in Migron, which the government says was built without its permission and on private Palestinian land.
Under a deal reached earlier this month, Migron’s residents agreed to relocate by 2015 to a new settlement to be built for them about a mile away.
But during oral arguments last week, justices scoffed at the government’s last-minute request to delay Migron’s evacuation for another three years, noting that previous governments had repeatedly missed deadlines and broken promises to take action regarding the outpost.
Though most of the international community views all Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegal, the Israeli government makes a distinction between settlements it has authorized and outposts, like Migron and several dozen others, that were built without permission.
The much-anticipated court decision puts the fate of Migron in limbo once again and sends government negotiators back to square one. For years, a succession of Israeli governments has avoided dismantling the outpost and others like it for fear of angering settler and religious groups.
“The government of Israel and Israeli citizens respect the court ruling and abide by Israel’s laws,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the ruling.
The case is seen as a key test of the checks and balances between Israel’s executive and judicial branches, and of the authority of the Supreme Court, which last year ordered Migron dismantled by March 31.
In issuing the order, Supreme Court President Asher Dan Grunis said Sunday that a court order was an obligation, not a choice, and that the decision was “a necessary component of the rule of law to which all are subject, as part of Israel's values as a Jewish and democratic state.”
“This is a big achievement,” said Michael Sfard, an attorney representing Palestinians who claim ownership of the land. “The court is saying that the law applies equally to all and that the government and settlers are bound by the law like everyone else.”
Settler leaders and conservative lawmakers condemned the decision, saying the court was forcing the country to endure what would likely be a painful and possibly violent eviction by police of Jewish families, who have vowed to resist efforts to move them.
Some members of the Knesset criticized the court and said they would renew their effort to pass legislation to retroactively allow outposts like Migron to remain, while providing monetary compensation to Palestinian landowners.
“We will pass the Migron arrangement by legislation and make clear to the court that it is the government that holds sovereignty over the state of Israel,’’ said Likud Party lawmaker Danny Danon on Israel Radio.
— Edmund Sanders
Photo: In this file photo taken Jan. 23, Jewish children play in the West Bank Jewish settlement outpost of Migron. Credit: Sebastian Scheiner / Associated Press.