JERUSALEM -- Israel, which for years won U.S. and European backing as the bulwark against the spread of communism through the Middle East, is now projecting itself as the West's defense against militant Islam, a movement it is portraying as even a greater danger.
In the Israeli view, Islamic fundamentalism is already sweeping across the Middle East, North Africa and now Central Asia and will soon challenge Western influence in regions far beyond, as Muslims try to make the 21st century the "Islamic century."
And while Israel considers itself the "first target" of militant Islam, blaming the fundamentalists for an upsurge in guerrilla attacks on its forces in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, and for increased terrorism against civilians, top officials here are warning that a "holy war" will also be waged against the West.
"Our struggle against murderous Islamic terror is also meant to awaken the world, which is lying in slumber," Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said last month in justifying his decision to expel 415 Palestinians as supporters of militant Islamic groups. "We call on all nations, all peoples to devote their attention to the great danger inherent in Islamic fundamentalism.
"This is a real and serious danger that threatens world peace in future years. And just as Israel was the first to perceive the Iraqi nuclear threat, so today we stand on the line of fire against . . . fundamentalist Islam."
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was equally grim in his portrayal of what he called "Khomeinism," the pan-Islamic fundamentalism espoused by the late Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
"Since the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, we consider Khomeinism the greatest danger the Middle East is facing -- not only us but the Arabs as well," Mr. Peres said. "It has many of the characteristics of communism. It is fanatic, it is ideological, it is religious, and it claims, like communism, that the goal justifies the means. . . . Most of all, it has the same inclination to export its ideas."
Mr. Peres said that for Israel, the threat from Iran comes not only in its support of Muslim militants among Palestinians but also in its unsettling effect on Egypt and other Arab states, whose stability is important for Israel's security as well as for peace in the region.
Israeli officials who focus on Iran say Tehran is providing money, weapons and political guidance in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as well as Egypt. They say Iran is similarly active in Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, several small Persian Gulf states and the newly independent nations of Central Asia.
But the greatest danger will come, they say, when Tehran acquires chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, along with the means to deliver them.
Outside Israel, scholars of the Middle East, Islam, Arabia and Persia have warned recently against the "demonization" of Islamic fundamentalism, a campaign they see as directed at Islam as a religion.
As for the movement itself, they don't consider it a threat to Israel's existence or that of the West.
But within Israel, the whole political and intellectual establishment has been galvanized to put across the message of danger.
"It is surely time that Washington, and indeed the West in general, woke up to the real dimensions and character of Hamas," Israeli historian Shmuel Katz said of the Islamic Resistance Movement. "It represents and propagates the 'Iranian revolution,' and its methods are revolutionary and violent. It seeks to dominate, first of all, the Arab world and to become the leader of all Muslims.
"Its ideological purpose is broader. It sees itself as the flaming sword of Islam, designed to exact 'vengeance' not only on Israel, but on the West at large. . . . It will not be long before the reach of those [Iranian] arms includes Europe."
In meetings with Western leaders, in discussions with visiting Jewish groups, in academic papers and in background briefings for foreign correspondents, Israelis argue both for continued Western support, particularly from the United States, in combating this threat -- and for less pressure on their country in negotiations with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states.
"This is a message we have to get across to the new administration in Washington," Mr. Rabin told visiting U.S. Jewish leaders in a recent meeting, according to a U.S. participant. "We are not sure that President-elect [Bill] Clinton and his team fully comprehend the danger from Islamic fundamentalism and the critical importance of Israel's role in fighting it."
The theme of that session, one of several meetings meant to put Israel's views before the Clinton administration as it takes office, was "Don't push us" in the negotiations, the participant said.
"We were left with the impression that whereas communism was rapacious, it was more or less rational, interested in its overall strategic position and concerned with direct benefit," the American said after meeting Mr. Rabin. "Now Israel faces rapaciousness that is irrational. That is, the nasty, old Middle East that we knew, if not loved, is being replaced by one far, far nastier."
There are some dissenting voices even in Israel.
Ehud Yaari, a specialist on Palestinian affairs, warned recently in Jerusalem Report that "Israeli officials show a striking tendency to exaggerate public support" for Hamas in comparison with the mainstream Palestine Liberation Organization.