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Israeli High Court Ruling Defuses Confrontation over Orient House

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Israel’s High Court of Justice has defused an issue that could have prompted violence days before Israel’s elections.

The high court on Tuesday delayed implementation of a government order to close three offices at Orient House, the Palestinians’ de facto headquarters in eastern Jerusalem.

Ruling on a petition filed by an Israeli peace group, the court gave state and Palestinian officials one week to explain why negotiations to resolve the dispute over the offices had failed.

The petitioners argued that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s drive to close the offices was a thinly veiled attempt to get votes. They also argued that the closure could set off violent unrest and pose a danger to the public.

The Palestinians had refrained from appealing to the court, fearing the move would be interpreted as their tacit recognition of Israeli sovereignty over eastern Jerusalem, which Israel captured during the 1967 Six-Day War.

The ruling, which postponed a potentially explosive situation until after Israel’s elections, came after Israeli officials served closure orders on the offices the night before.

The orders were served after Israel and the Palestinians failed to reach an understanding, despite intensive contacts between Public Security Minister Avigdor Kahalani and representatives from Orient House.

According to Israeli media reports, the Palestinians had agreed to transfer the operations of the offices, but had rejected the Israeli demand to close down the offices.

The reports further said that while Netanyahu had pressed for enforcing the closure orders, Kahalani had argued for giving more time to the negotiations out of concern that sending Israeli police into Orient House would lead to bloodshed.

The court ruling was welcomed by Israeli opposition members, who charged that the prime minister, who has been lagging in opinion polls behind Labor Party candidate Ehud Barak, was trying to force a confrontation in order to take a tough stand on Jerusalem prior to next week’s elections.

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert also welcomed the ruling.

A member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, Olmert said he had advised Netanyahu earlier this week against issuing the orders before the Israeli elections.

Olmert, who may seek the party leadership if Netanyahu loses the elections, said that while under other circumstances closure of the offices would be justified, in the present circumstances it would appear to be politically motivated.

For his part, Netanyahu said the ruling was expected, and that the government would abide by the law.

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