Under the 2003 "road map" peace plan, Israel promised to remove about two dozen or so unauthorized hilltop outposts as a way to build confidence in Palestinian peace talks, but has so far avoided dismantling the outpost communities for fear of violent clashes with settlers.
This week, the government revealed a compromise reached with the settler leadership aimed at avoiding conflict: Migron, a flagship outpost of 40 families living in mobile homes near the Palestinian city of Ramallah, would be relocated to an already existing settlement.
But at a Supreme Court hearing Wednesday, justices sided with Palestinians who own the land at Migron. Their lawyers argued that the deal allows the government to avoid evacuation during the minimum three years it could take to build new homes.
"I don't believe that Migron will be moved," says Michael Sfard, a lawyer for the settlement watchdog group Peace Now, which represented the Palestinians. "All of these statements are only made to enable more extensions by the courts."
Clashes over settlement evacuations will carry extra political weight in the run-up to a Feb. 10 general election, especially for Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whose Labor Party is sagging in the polls and desperately needs votes from left-wing Israelis. Mr. Barak, who oversees Israel's military occupation of the West Bank, is already embroiled in a standoff over a house in Hebron that settlers moved into illegally in 1997 and which the Supreme Court last week said must be cleared.
"The legal system is closing in on the government," says Hebrew University political science professor Yaron Ezrahi. "And so is public expectation that the government will do something about it. Things are moving finally, maybe because of the election."
The case of Migron highlights nearly three years of Israeli dissonance on settlements as the administration of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert draws to a close. The government admits that the outpost was erected on Palestinian land, but has repeatedly requested delays in court proceedings to avoid a clash.
Though Mr. Olmert came into office promising a unilateral withdrawal from some parts of the West Bank and new settlement evacuations, the number of Israelis has grown unabated in territories claimed by the Palestinians as a part of a future state.
With a February election approaching, Olmert has said Israel will have to return roughly to the 1967 border with the West Bank in a peace deal left for his successor, but has managed little progress on the unauthorized outposts.
The failure to tamp down settlement growth is a sore spot with the Palestinian Authority, which argues that the ongoing expansions undermine public support in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip for peace talks.
Supreme Court President Dorit Beinish, who Peace Now says leveled pointed criticism of the government deal during the proceedings, gave the state 45 days to explain why it doesn't evacuate Migron.
Mr. Sfard argued that it would take three to seven years for new homes to be prepared for Migron residents, and that even though the new location is within the legal boundary of the settlement of Adam, it would represent a violation of the road map commitment to halt settlement expansion.
Settler leaders said they negotiated the compromise with the government to avoid a "rift" among Israelis over an evacuation. Any future settlement removal is almost certain to be more violent than the 2005 Gaza Strip withdrawal.
"We reached an agreement with the prime minister and the defense minister to lower the flames," says Pinchas Wallerstein, a former head of the settlers' council. "If the government of Israel can't make good on the agreement, it understands well the price it will pay. We tried to avoid conflict."