THE ASSASSINATION of Israel's prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, should not be a referendum on Israeli society and democracy as some observers are suggesting. However, it does illuminate the influential role of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel.
For several reasons, religious extremism in Israel will be one of Israel's most serious future problems -- a veritable Catch-22 of politics.
First, to be sure, fundamentalism remains on the fringe of Israeli politics, and is a divided movement. The largest fundamentalist group, Gush Emunim (The Bloc of the Faithful), has only 15,000 to 25,000 active members. However, since the re-emergence of fundamentalism in the late 1970s, the movement has been gaining ground and political clout; it now commands serious attention even outside its small nucleus of fervent activists.
Political parties from the religious right, moreover, exercise influence in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. They affect the platforms of the major parties that need their votes to form a majority, and also influence the views of Israelis who are riding the fence on peace. While only a small fraction of fundamentalists would support killing a prime minister, it only takes a few determined individuals to cause havoc.
Second, like fundamentalists in other contexts, many Jewish extremists have a cosmic ideology. In 1967, Israel captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. This was viewed by fundamentalist Jews in biblical terms. Jerusalem was once again united; Jews could be whole again.
The West Bank, which Israelis call Judea and Samaria, is referred to in the Bible as God-given land, as Jewish land. Fundamentalists take this seriously. But even more importantly, fundamentalists believe that God's very redemption of the Jewish people cannot occur if Judea and Samaria are returned to the Palestinians. Thousands of years of Jewish history, thus, hinge on this disputed land.
Viewed in this light, killing Mr. Rabin is an heroic act of colossal, timeless proportions. It delivers the Jewish people from yet another historical tragedy; it makes the path of salvation possible. Yigal Amir, the assassin, was at war with Mr. Rabin; in his view, then, the Jewish legal code, to which he referred after the murder, allowed for killing his enemy, Mr. Rabin.
This world and the next
Such strongly held religious views, when mixed with politics, make compromise or even reasonable dialogue with other Jews or Arabs impossible. A true fundamentalist will not bargain away life on earth -- and, more important, the afterlife -- for politics.
Third, many Jewish fundamentalists share views with Israel's secular parties. Like many Likud Party members, they believe that Arabs will always want to kill Jews; that peace is wishful thinking, and that Israel should not trade land for a useless piece of paper. What sets the fundamentalists apart, however, is not only their cosmic views, but their increasing militancy. As the stakes associated with peace have increased, they have become much more willing to use force.
Fourth, while some members of religious parties are doves, many on the religious right may choose not to be co-opted into the political process, if that means giving up land. For his part, the Palestine Liberation Organization's Yasser Arafat is now trying to persuade Hamas -- the extremist Palestinian group responsible for blowing up Israeli buses -- into participating in the coming Palestinian elections. So far, Hamas refuses. Israel's religious right, while politically influential, may also increasingly resort to extra-political measures to achieve its goals. This could put Israel on the course toward serious civil disobedience, particularly since mainstream Jews will want to crack down on Jewish fundamentalists.
Fifth, many religious extremists, like the early Zionists, identify less with Israel than with Judaism at a transcendent level. Thus, they are less easily controlled by the state, its symbols, laws and power. Some even hold the state as a concept in disdain.
Finally, efforts to control religious extremism give Israel multiple dilemmas. Recent polls suggest that Israelis may now want to control further religious parties and to curtail vicious speech, but Israel also prides itself on democracy. To make peace, the government may have to crack down on Jewish settlers in the occupied territories, but then Jews will really be pitted against other Jews. And a mini-civil war may convince Israelis on the fence that peace is just not worth it. Finally, if the political temperature continues to rise, Jewish extremists may strike again.
For decades, Israel has faced implacable Arab enemies on its borders; most of the Arab world still remains hostile toward the Jewish state. But one of the great future issues is how Israel can deal with its own internal threats. The greater the move toward peace, the more significant this problem will likely be. The more Israel concedes to its Arab counterparts, the more conflict it will face with its own religious right. That's almost a Catch-22.
Steve A. Yetiv is a professor of political science at Old Dominion University and a research affiliate at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. He is the author of "America in the Persian Gulf -- The Third Party Dimension."