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Israeli Settlements in Vise Between Court and Council

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The Israeli supreme court's brusque dismissal of Benjamin Netanyahu's "compromise" to avoid demolishing a West Bank settler outpost that even Israelis acknowledge is illegal spotlights the deep divisions within Israel about the ongoing settlement enterprise.

Awkwardly, it comes at precisely the moment when Netanyahu is seeking to marshal a united front to discredit the international inquiry ordered last Thursday by the United Nations Human Rights Council into the settlements' implications for the human rights of Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Clearly, despite the Obama administration's veto last year of a Security Council resolution mandating a halt to settlement construction in the territories seized from Jordan in 1967, the issue will not go away. Israeli opponents of the costly and contentious colonization campaign will continue to contest it in the courts, and the international community will continue to challenge the creeping annexation of what remained after 1949 of Arab Palestine.

The outpost of Migron, which now counts 60 mobile homes housing 300 zealous settlers a few kilometers from the Palestinian Authority's seat at Ramallah, has been unusually controversial even in the Israeli government. Months after the housing ministry funded infrastructure work for the settlers in 2003, a year after they occupied the site, Conservative prime minister Ariel Sharon vowed to dismantle the outpost. He didn't.

After court skirmishes in which the government acknowledged the settlement's illegal construction on privately owned Palestinian land, prime minister Ehud Olmert in early 2008 promised the high court that it would be demolished by August. It wasn't.

This history triggered the high court's unprecedented order last August for the outpost's removal by April 1, 2012. A thousand policemen were mobilized to face down 200 enraged settlers and tear down the three permanent structures in September, but the mobile homes and their occupants remained. But rather than remove them, the Netanyahu government proposed a three-year extension, promising the settlers that in place of the Migron outpost "a new neighborhood will be built for 200 families, and maybe more, for the glory of the state of Israel," in the words of Cabinet minister Benny Begin.

The court spurned the plan Sunday but gave the government four months more to clear the site. The high court now faces a fundamental test of its authority -- and the very real possibility that Israel's hard-right government will defy the court. Many Israelis fear that the looming confrontation will be, more fundamentally, a test of Israel's commitment to democracy and the rule of law -- a test their settler-enthralled government seems determined to fail.

If Netanyahu is prepared to defy Israel's own law and courts on the settlement enterprise, we cannot be surprised that he summarily dismisses protests in the international community, even those pressed by his country's biggest protector. But even by his standards, his vow to stonewall the U.N. Human Rights Council inquiry was unusually fierce.

Having persuaded only one country, the United States, to oppose the U.N. fact-finding panel in the 36-1 vote, Netanyahu announced Thursday that his government would sever all contact with the Human Rights Council and with the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. Indeed, he directed Israel's U.N. ambassador in Geneva to not even take her telephone calls.

In justification, Netanyahu recycled the regular refrain of the Israeli right -- that the United Nations and its "hypocritical council with an automatic majority against Israel" can claim no moral authority to judge his country. But in adamantly vowing to bar the U.N. panel from both Israel and the Palestinian territories, he uncomfortably assumed the same stance of defiance of a Human Rights Council inquiry as Bashar al-Assad.

There is no worry about the panel being able to undertake its inquiry. Israeli human rights groups have long documented the settlements' impacts on Palestinians, and much critical evidence is already on public record. Just as the council's Syria commission was devastatingly credible in its report, despite being barred from on-site visits, the settlements inquiry can be credible despite Netanyahu's obstruction.

Only two of the eight European members of the council, Austria and Belgium, voted to launch the inquiry, infuriating the Israeli governing coalition that treats European silence as de facto legitimation. But the Israeli right cannot count on European docility forever on the issue of settlements in the occupied territories; even its fondest ally, President Bush, acknowledged the settlements' centrality in the Quartet "road map" a decade ago.

With Israel's own courts beginning to chip away at the omertà surrounding settlements in the Israeli debate just as the world assesses them in human rights terms, the issue now acquires an almost existential dimension for Israelis: what kind of state, what kind of peace?