Netanyahu weathers settlement showdown in parliament

JERUSALEM Wed Jun 6, 2012 12:26pm BST

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won a battle in parliament on Wednesday over an attempt by far-right legislators to legalise all Jewish settler homes built on private Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank.

The right-wing premier had pledged to abide by a Supreme Court ruling and remove five settler apartment houses erected on disputed tracts in the settlement of Beit El.

Pro-settler legislators tried to stay Netanyahu's hand with a bill that critics said would have challenged the rule of law in Israel by bypassing the Supreme Court and retroactively legalising those homes and thousands of others like them.

But at Netanyahu's behest, the legislation was voted down by a vote of 69 to 22 in the Knesset, where Netanyahu's coalition controls 94 of 120 seats.

Hours before the vote, Netanyahu won approval from the attorney general for his plan to relocate the disputed dwellings, home to 30 families, to a military zone near Beit El. Settler leaders and their parliamentary backers, including members of Netanyahu's Likud party, opposed the proposal.

Under the plan, Netanyahu promised to build 300 new housing units in the West Bank, an apparent bid to appease settlers and their supporters - his traditional power base - but a step also likely to anger Palestinians and draw international criticism.

Palestinians fear Israeli settlements, built on land Israel captured in a 1967 war, will deny them a viable state, and they refuse to return to peace talks frozen since 2010 until their expansion is halted. The U.N. World Court considers the settlements illegal but Israel, citing historical and Biblical links to the territory, disputes this.

Netanyahu had been thrust into a political minefield by a Supreme Court ruling that determined the five apartment houses in Beit El had been built illegally on land under private Palestinian ownership and must be removed by July 1.

His plan to move the structures to the military zone in what could be a complicated engineering project was widely seen in Israel as a way for Netanyahu to avoid the damage that footage of demolished settler dwellings would cause to his image as a champion of settlement.

And while Netanyahu's political victory could leave a reservoir of resentment against him in the Likud and among the settler community, defying the Supreme Court - regarded by many Israelis as an important watchdog over the government - would have likely caused a public outcry.

"This is a government of cowards," Aryeh Eldad, a legislator from the far-right National Union party, told reporters.

Netanyahu has threatened to fire any member of his government who voted in favour of the legislation, and his ultranationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, decided at the last minute not to back the bills.

Several cabinet ministers who supported the legislation stayed away from the Knesset session and avoided the vote.

Facing down a clutch of Likud rebels, Netanyahu also had the support of the centrist Kadima party, the major partner in a coalition government - one of the biggest in Israel's history - that he formed last month.

(Editing by Alison Williams)

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