Political aftershocks from the Israel High Court ban on further works on the controversial Elon Moreh West Bank settlement reverberated through the government today, amplified by the disclosure that Defense Minister Ezer Weizman threatened to quit the Cabinet over the issue.
Moreover, a move in Israel's parliament to adopt a law proclaiming settlement in the West Bank a basic right not dependent on defense justification appeared to assure deepening political divisions that ultimately could severely test Prime Minister Menachem Begin's Likud coalition.
These moves come as right wing recriminations continued against former Army chief of staff Chaim Bar-Lev for supporting Arab landowner's claims that Elon Moreh is not militarily justifiable. The attacks put Begin in the uncomfortable position of having to decide whether to assail the one-time war hero and possibly stir up opposition to the settlements from moderate, undecided Israelis.
These and other developments promised to thrust West Bank settlements into the forefront of major national issues this summer, presumably coming to a head with a decisive political debate and a test of wills in the parliament, or Knesset.
Sources close to Weizman confirmed a report in Maariv, the afternoon Hebrew newspaper, that the defense minister and Begin clashed in Sunday's Cabinet meeting on the proposed submission to the High Court of Justice of an affidavit specifying that Elon Moreh, near the Arab City of Nablus, is necessary for security.
The new Jewish civilian outpost was hastily established on June 7 by the ultranationalist Gush Emunim (Faith Bloc) with the support of the Israeli Army. The High Court, Wednesday, barred further work on the site because proper expropriation orders had not been served on Arab landowners.However, the court delayed a decision on the wider issue of whether Elon Moreh's continued presence is justified on security grounds.
When it was proposed that Army chief of staff Rafael Eitan give the court a sworn affidavit, Weizman is understood to have told the Cabinet that as defense minister, only he could present the affidavit, but that he would not because it would conflict with his conscience. Ultimately, Eitan presented the court not with a sworn affidavit, but merely a letter saying Elon Moreh would "improve" the Army's hold on an important West Bank crossroads.
To counter the Eitan letter, the Arab landowners offered statements by Bar-Lev calling Elon Moreh a purely civilian enterprise that did not fulfull an essential security role.
Weizman, along with Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, voted against establishing Elon Moreh, purportedly not only because of the land seizure involved but also because they felt it would upset the negotiations with Egypt on West Bank autonomy and result in increased American pressure.
Sources close to Weizman said today an unspoken "cease-fire" was in effect in the Cabinet but that the issue is certain to come up again in the next meeting Sunday.
The settlement controversy apparently could take several directions in terms of the domestic political arena, excluding consideration of pressure exerted by the United States.
The High Court could take Begin off the hook later this summer when it weighs a request for a permanent ban of Elon Moreh, by giving the Likud government carte blanche for building settlements with any justification, even ideological.
If the court were to go the other way and order the dismantling of Elon Moreh, the Knesset, which will recess in August until after the high Jewish holidays in October, could call a special session and consider a law permitting West Bank settlement anywhere and anytime simply on the basis of national interest.
Or, what seems the most unlikely scenario, Begin could be forced by pressure from both within and outside Israel to drastically alter his settlement policy and, in effect, impose a freeze on new civilian outposts.
The question is paramount for Begin because Israeli public opinion is split on the issue, and further debate will only deepen the divisions.
A move to change the law and eliminate the security justification for new settlements could put Begin's Likud coalition to its severest test.
Official in such a showdown would be the Gush Emunim-allied National Religious Party, whose 12 Knesset members are pivotal in the Likud coalition. If the NRP quit the coalition, the Likud would inevitably collapse, forcing new elections.
However Begin decides to deal with the gnawing settlement issue, the remote Samarian hillock where Elon Moreh was established two weeks ago is turning out to be a focal point of what promises to be a long, hot political summer.