The Israeli government asked the Supreme Court on Wednesday to postpone the dismantling of a rogue West Bank settler enclave until 2015 _ a move that will likely deepen Palestinian concerns that dozens such unsanctioned outposts will be allowed to remain despite Israel's long-standing pledge to remove them.
The request was submitted even though the top court had ordered that Migron, one of the largest West Bank outposts, to be evacuated by the end of March, saying it was built on private Palestinian land.
The Palestinians want the West Bank to be at the core of their future state that would also to include Gaza and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Following the Supreme Court's order on the evacuation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's pro-settler coalition negotiated a deal with Migron's 300 settlers that allows them to stay put until new homes are built for them on a nearby hilltop. The government told the court that construction of the new homes would be completed by November 2015.
It's now up to the court whether to approve the arrangement, which critics say rewards lawbreaking squatters.
Jewish settlers began setting up outposts without formal government approval in the 1990s, after Israeli governments pledged they would not build new settlements.
In all, half a million Israelis live on war-won land sought by the Palestinians for a state, including 300,000 in more than 120 sanctioned settlements in the West Bank. All Israeli settlements, whether government-sanctioned or not, are deemed illegal by much of the international community.
After the high court set the March 31 evacuation deadline for Migron, Israel's government tried to find a way to avoid a potentially violent showdown with settlers and their supporters.
Formally, the government is not sidestepping the court's ruling because it is asking for its approval to delay the evacuation, said legal analyst Moshe Negbi. But negotiating with lawbreakers is not conduct appropriate for a democracy, he said, adding that "it's clearly the bankruptcy of the rule of law."
Alan Baker, a former legal adviser to Israel's foreign ministry, says the state is taking action to avoid being in contempt of court.
In the meantime, a state-ordered panel is reviewing findings of a 2005 government-commissioned report that said Migron and dozens of other outposts were built without authorization on private Palestinian land.
Settlers say there are questions about who owns the land on which Migron stands.
Wednesday's government request was a sign of bad faith, said Palestinian spokesman Ghassan Khatib. "This proves that Israel is not really committed to the requirements of peace as much as it is committed to the settlement process," Khatib said.
Progress to peace "would require two states, including a Palestinian state which is supposed to be established on the exact land Israel is building and expanding settlements on," he added.
The Palestinians have refused to resume talks because Netanyahu won't freeze settlement construction.
Located nine miles (14 kilometers) north of Jerusalem, Migron is one of the more than 100 outposts erected in a bid to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.
More than 3,000 settlers live in these enclaves, which were built with the help of sympathetic government officials who made sure these unsanctioned communities received military protection, infrastructure and hookups to utility grids.
A decade ago, Israel promised to tear down two dozen outposts, including Migron, built since early 2001. Political and legal obstacles, and violent clashes with settlers over the dismantling of isolated outpost buildings, discouraged the government from honoring this pledge.
Under the proposed agreement with the Migron residents, a government-subsidized neighborhood will be built for them in what the state says will be a new neighborhood of the authorized settlement of Kochav Yaakov.
But settlement opponents said Israel would in fact establish a new settlement.
"We are outraged about this deal because a brand new settlement will be built in an isolated place that in no future agreement will be part of Israel," said Yariv Oppenheimer, the director of the settlement watchdog Peace Now.
Associated Press writers Ian Deitch and Daniella Cheslow in Jerusalem contributed reporting.