JERUSALEM — ISRAELI Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's secular government has won the first round of what is likely to be a protracted battle with an influential section of the religious establishment trying to block the next phase of the land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians.
"I think the [rabbis'] move has backfired," says Moshe Halbertal, a professor of Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University here. "The rabbis have marginalized themselves. All the political parties - on the right and the left - have denounced their action."
Last week's shock ruling by a powerful group of conservative rabbis - who stated that it is against religious Jewish law to remove Army bases and settlements from the Israeli-occupied West Bank - drew a furious response from the government, the military, and a section of the religious establishment that regards cooperation with the state as paramount.
The rabbis' ruling was denounced by Israel's chief rabbis, civil servants who seek to reflect the consensus of religious leaders and rule over such matters as the definition of who is a Jew.
Israel's chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Ysrael Lau, spiritual head of Jews of European origin, told Israeli television that the rabbis' ruling could lead to "anarchy'' and advised soldiers to obey orders from their superiors.
And the chief Sephardic rabbi, Eliyahu Baksahi-Doron, the spiritual head of Jews from Arab countries, said the ruling concerned the security of the state and therefore it was improper for the rabbis to ask soldiers to disobey orders.
Hebrew University political scientist Yoran Ezrahi estimates that 70 percent of Israelis can be regarded as broadly secular, with 20 percent observant or Orthodox Jews and about 10 percent ultra-Orthodox (haredim), who are growing in both number and influence in Jerusalem.
The intervention of the rabbis has raised basic questions about Israel.
And it has ruptured the balance between a growing secular establishment and an increasingly extreme element in the religious establishment that sees retention of all Biblical land of Israel as nonnegotiable.
"Israel is far from being a theocracy," Halbertal says.
"It is a democracy that has granted some powers in issues of personal status to the religious authorities. The power of the rabbis depends on their popularity."
Even if the religious establishment took a united stand on so controversial an issue as giving up some authority over the West Bank to Palestinians, the Israeli government would be forced to limit its power through legislation, he adds.
Ultimately, the only way the rabbis could get their way in a democracy would be if their popularity enabled them to change the government to one that was more in tune with their views. But he says their challenge raised concerns about the integrity of society and the future.
It could exacerbate tensions around what was already likely to be an explosive situation when Israeli soldiers withdraw from areas of the West Bank and are replaced by Palestinian police, as is expected in a few weeks after final negotiations are completed.
"With such a delicate entanglement between the Israeli soldiers, the Palestinian police, and the settlers ... that's where the situation could explode," he says.
The ruling also created a serious dilemma for religious Zionism, which had traditionally cooperated with the state and its institutions as one of its fundamental tenets.
"What we have here is a clash between the land and the state," Halbertal says.
"The rabbis are saying: For the sake of the land, we are prepared to sacrifice society and the state. It is a land-oriented Zionism even at the expense of the state," he says.
What if there were a right-wing Likud government and soldiers refused to serve because they were committed to the peace process and felt that the status quo had been reversed by undemocratic means?
"If they [the rabbis] play that game now, why should the soldiers serve under Likud?," Halbertal asks.
"We went out to serve in the Lebanon war against our better judgment because we believed it was important to maintain the integrity of society," he says, referring to the 1982 war that gave rise to the Peace Now movement and first raised the issue of conscientious objection in Israel.
The fringe movement later gained ground during the intifadah, a popular Palestinian uprising in 1987, when a handful of soldiers were jailed for refusing to serve on the basis of conscience. But the Army later defused the issue by quietly accommodating the objectors.
"I recognize that what the rabbis are advocating is a form of conscientious objection based on a principle. Soldiers will be faced with a clash between what they believe and orders from superiors," he says. "But you have to weigh the effect such action will have on society.
"Given the fact that we are in a siege situation with hostile countries, we need a shared life ... a consensus ... to maintain our internal strength," he says.
Jay Shapiro, a settler from Ginot Shomrom near the West Bank towns of Kalkilya and Nablus, says that the ruling by the rabbis raised the old question of whether Israel was "a Jewish country or a country of Jews."
"The concept of returning to the Holy Land is 2,000 years old. It is basic to our belief and we have kept the idea alive through religion," says Mr. Shapiro, a United States citizen who emigrated to Israel with his family 25 years ago.
He says the irony of the state of Israel was that it was founded and governed largely by secular people who had lost touch with their Jewish roots.
"What Jews would never have imagined 2,000 years ago is that the state [of Israel] would be created by secular people," he says.
"So now you have a state full of Jews who have lost touch with their Jewishness," says Shapiro, an observant Jew who says he is strongly connected to his Jewish identity through religion.
Shapiro, who says he is having sleepless nights at the prospect of meeting armed Palestinian soldiers on the road he drives daily to his job near Tel Aviv, says he is not seeking a religious state.
"What I am looking for is a state in which religious law plays a greater role than it does now," he says.
Israelis battle over idea of Palestinian police on the West Bank in a few weeks.