PARIS — Paris. -- The most extreme nationalist is the one whose nationality is in doubt. The Kach movement in Israel, whose member, Baruch Goldstein, killed 52 Muslim worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, February 25, is one of several American politico-religious sects transplanted to Israel.
Late arrivals on the Israeli scene, these sects aggressively employ the iconography of the Holocaust and of a Nazi persecution they never themselves experienced. The Hebron murderer, Baruch Goldstein, wore the yellow star to political demonstrations inside Israel but never had to wear it in Germany. The members of Kach were not even in Israel in 1948 to create a Jewish state. They nonetheless tell native Israelis and the generation of Jews who since 1948 have built and defended the country that they, the arrivals from America, know best about Israel's destiny.
There is an appropriation here of other peoples' sufferings and fate that can be thought obscene. The practical result has been the conceptual conflation of Nazis with Palestinians -- available enemies -- and the dehumanization of the Palestinians in order to justify their expulsion from a "greater" Israel -- or their murder. One extremist rabbi said in a eulogy to the murderer, "One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail."
This clearly is pathology, not religion or politics, but it is nonetheless a phenomenon of consequence. A former Jerusalem correspondent for the French press, Bernard Cohen, has remarked that the Kach and other ultra-Orthodox movements of American origin bear the mark of an internalized American puritanism. They have given a new intensity to extreme Orthodoxy in Israel, extending its proscriptive claims upon society. To take a trivial but significant example, the sects are responsible for the recent introduction of "Kosher" buses, in which men are segregated from women.
They represent, according to Mr. Cohen, a merger of a certain American moral fanaticism with a decadent version of Central European Ashkenazi millenarianism. The political result is a movement demanding Israel's expansion to incorporate all of the Biblical lands and expel the non-Jewish population. Violence is taken for granted to accomplish this.
The majority of the some 130,000 settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have, of course, little to do with the extremist sects. Some share the expansionist goal, but many are there for practical reasons or because some of the settlements were conceived as part of Israel's defensive system. Some 60 percent of the settlers have already indicated that they would leave if the government gave them financial help to do so. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has already suggested that some settlements should be abandoned.
However, the Israeli government has been unwilling to confront the issue. In the tentative terms of the peace agreement reached between Mr. Peres and the PLO leadership, even discussion of the ultimate fate of the colonies (and of Jerusalem) can be -- and is expected to be -- postponed for another two years. Many in Israel expect it to be postponed until long after that.
The Israeli negotiators' desire to postpone the matter reflects an enduring internal Israeli division, but also the reluctance of the liberal political class to face the fact that Israel cannot at the same time have settlements populated by expansionists and lasting peace with a self-governing Palestine.
The conservative Likud governments of recent years were divided on the issue of national expansion but supported new settlements, in disregard of international law. Some Likud leaders, such as former Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, aggressively favored creating an "irreversible" situation. They wanted Arab Jerusalem and the territories so thoroughly colonized that no subsequent Israeli government would be politically capable of reversing what had been done.
Thus the Israeli public has uneasily acquiesced in an illegal program of colonization and national expansion that only a minority really wanted. The result not only is an obstacle to settlement with the PLO but a potential cause for civil conflict, if not insurrection. A part of the Kach leadership has gone underground and defies the feeble attempt the Rabin government thus far has made to disarm the extremists.
The possibility exists of a crisis resembling the one France went through in 1961-62, when a part of its army allied with French settlers in Algeria in a secret organization to overthrow France's government and kill General DeGaulle, in order to block Algerian independence. A part of the Israeli army sympathizes with the settlers, although there is no sign of a loss of discipline. The threat is on a smaller scale than in France, but Israel is a small country.
The Hebron massacre has brought Israel to a defining point in its short history. Baruch Goldstein's act of terrorism was meant to ruin the peace talks and save the cause of Israeli expansion. He may have done so.
President Clinton is right to say that if the PLO refuses to resume peace negotiations it will hand victory to the extremists. But the Israeli government bears its own responsibility in what is happening. It no longer is possible to equivocate about the settlements. If the Israeli public can contemplate closing them down several years from now, it can contemplate closing them today. Either the Hebron massacre inspires a resolute move forward toward peace, or Baruch Goldstein has won.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.