JERUSALEM, AUG. 20 -- Israel's Supreme Court today ordered a halt to work on a huge U.S. radio transmission facility planned for Israel's Negev desert until arguments can be heard on its environmental impact.
The decision marked the latest round in a seesaw battle between the Israeli government and environmentalists over the $290 million project. The station is intended to improve broadcasts by the Voice of America and other U.S. stations to the Soviet Union and Central Asia. Israel agreed to the project four years ago, but environmentalists are waging a last-ditch campaign to stop it.
According to representatives of Israel's Society for Protection of Nature, the Supreme Court today gave the government 45 days to respond to several questions raised in an appeal lodged by the environmental group. The society, which has been backed by some environmental groups in the United States, is arguing that the transmission station poses a threat to bird migration in Israel's Arava valley.
Environmentalists also argue that a planning commission decision last month to approve the project was improper because board members were subjected to political pressure by the government. The government, hoping to avoid embarrassment in its U.S. relations, has insisted it will live up to its commitment to the station, in which $40 million already has been invested.
U.S. officials have denied that the broadcasting station -- with antennas as tall as 70-story buildings -- poses any threat to birds or to the health of Israeli farmers in the area. Officials had hoped to begin construction by late this year and complete it by 1993.
A spokesman for the Nature group said today that the Supreme Court's decision meant any construction work would now be delayed by at least three to four months, the time it would take for the court to hear arguments and reach a final decision.