JERUSALEM Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced down opposition on Monday in his pro-settlement Likud party to implementing a Supreme Court ruling to remove five settler buildings erected on private Palestinian land.
The fate of the dwellings, home to 30 families in Beit El settlement in the occupied West Bank, has turned into a political minefield for Netanyahu, a right-wing leader who has long banked on the support of settlers and their backers.
In a meeting behind closed doors, Netanyahu urged Likud lawmakers to vote against legislation on parliament's agenda this week that seeks to override the court's decision and retroactively legalize any settler homes on private Palestinian property.
"Even if the court's ruling is difficult for some people, we must respect it," he said, according to participants at the session.
Palestinians fear Israeli settlements will deny them a viable state, and the World Court has determined that all of the enclaves Israel has constructed on territory it occupied in a 1967 war are illegal.
Negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in late 2010 in a dispute over Jewish settlement building in the West Bank, and Palestinians have demanded a halt to the construction before talks resume.
Israeli courts have focused on narrower legal challenges by anti-settlement Israeli groups and by individual Palestinians who claim ownership to land on which some settlements have been built.
Tsipi Hotovely, a Likud legislator who attended the meeting with Netanyahu, was quoted by Israel's YNet news site as telling him: "The struggle isn't about five houses. It's a struggle over the delegitimization of the settlement enterprise."
Despite his concerns about far-right opponents, Netanyahu also faces the prospect of a public outcry in Israel and international criticism should he be seen as defying the Jewish state's highest legal authority. Many Israelis regard the Supreme Court as a vital independent watchdog over the government.
Government officials said on Sunday Netanyahu had proposed a plan that would avoid demolishing the five apartment buildings, suggesting they could be relocated to another part of Beit El where no land ownership case is pending in court.
Before making a final decision on his plan, which also envisages building 10 homes in Beit El for each of the dwellings that is moved, Netanyahu has sought a legal opinion from Israel's attorney-general. He is expected to issue it within days.
As Netanyahu spoke to the Likud lawmakers, dozens of settlers from Beit El and its disputed Ulpana neighborhood where the five buildings are located, marched to Jerusalem to lobby for the legislation to legalize the homes.
"We're not afraid of you, Netanyahu," they chanted.
Some Israeli pundits saw the dispute as threatening to split Netanyahu's party for the first time since a 2005 Gaza pullout led former prime minister Ariel Sharon to break with Likud's ranks and establish the centrist Kadima faction.
Kadima is now a major partner in Netanyahu's governing coalition, and the party's leader, Shaul Mofaz, has voiced his opposition to the bill, which is up for an initial vote on Wednesday and must pass three more votes before becoming law.
(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Rosalind Russell)