Tension caused by a spate of Arab attacks against Jews in Israel is giving rise to a wave of anti-Arab feeling here and may endanger prospects for Israeli involvement in Middle East peace negotiations. Israeli officials say they are worried that if the attacks are not checked, the racist policies advocated by Rabbi Meir Kahane, a member of parliament, will gain support and the fragile steps toward peace with Jordan and the Palestinians may be endangered. Rabbi Kahane leads the Kach movement, which calls for the expulsion of Arabs from all of Israel as well as from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
``Just imagine what three more attacks like [these] would do,'' said an Israeli official in Jerusalem who declined to be identified. ``The country is becoming more and more polarized, Kahane is becoming stronger. These attacks create anger and fear toward Arabs. Such feelings won't help the peace process.''
In a nation where security concerns are paramount, the slaying of two Jewish couples and a razor attack by an Arab against a group of schoolchildren in recent weeks have produced what one Western diplomat described as a state of ``near-hysteria.''
The latest incident occurred last week, when two teachers from the northern Israeli town of Afula were kidnapped and murdered. When the bodies were found Friday, Jews in Afula rioted, smashing Arab shop windows and beating passers-by.
The quick arrest of three Arab teen-agers who confessed to the crime somewhat defused the situation, and security forces almost immediately demolished their families' homes. The demolition of homes has been condemned in the past by the United States as a violation of the Geneva Convention, but an Israeli Defense Ministry source insisted it is a viable deterrent.
``It makes the crime painful,'' the source said. ``Some would say, `But shouldn't you have waited until after their conviction?' But if you don't do it right away, it loses some of the impact.''
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin added fuel to the current fire over security last week when he said that security forces did not have enough deterrent ability. Some politicians and newspapers have been advocating the use of capital punishment against terrorists who commit murder. Israel has a death penalty law on its books, but it is not used. Murder carries a mandatory life sentence.
The Israeli Cabinet discussed yesterday what measures could be taken to deter attacks.
While the Cabinet met, Israeli jets attacked what an Army spokesman said was a base for the Ahmed Jibril Palestinian guerrilla group in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. The area is under Syrian control, and a Damascus radio report said Syrian antiaircraft guns fired at the attackers. A spokesman denied that the raid was connected to the Afula murders.
The Cabinet, meanwhile, referred the security questions to a special committee headed by Mr. Rabin, which is to report on legal steps to crack down on attacks.
Some of the measures being discussed include reviving deportation and using administrative detention, already used in the occupied territories, inside Israel's pre-1967 boundaries. Until 1979, the Israeli military would sometimes simply arrive at the door of a West Bank Arab and ferry him to the border. Under laws instituted since then, deportation now takes up to a year.
But, some critics say, focusing narrowly on deterrents and punishments will not end the cycle of violence.
``I see it increasing, and I think that we will ultimately all suffer,'' said Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian lawyer who directs a legal aid service on the West Bank. ``There is nothing worse than blind and arbitrary violence . . . . The root causes of it must be confronted, and that doesn't mean just adding more punitive actions.''
Mr. Shehadeh noted that some recent attacks had been carried out by teenagers who have grown up under Israel's occupation on the West Bank.
``It is a fact that Arabs are being subjected to acts of terror by [Jewish] settlers,'' he said. ``There is a situation on the West Bank where people suffer from arbitrary actions -- curfews, and other collective punishments.''
Shehadeh's views were also expressed by Ze'ev Shiff, correspondent for the Haaretz newspaper.
``We should remember that we are in a state of war here with a people which has been pushed into a corner. The only thing the extremists among us are saying to these people that they must either become accustomed to Israeli occupation, commit national suicide, or leave their homes and villages. We shouldn't wonder, then, that the Palestinians have resorted to arms and sabotage,'' Mr. Shiff wrote in an article published Sunday.
Some Israeli officials trace the current wave of violence to the Israeli government's release last spring of 1,150 Arabs, some convicted murderers, in exchange for three Israeli soldiers. More than 600 were allowed to return to their homes on the West Bank, in Gaza, and inside pre-1967 Israel.
``If these attacks will continue, then everything is lost in terms of coexistence here,'' said an official who had supported the exchange. ``You have to be ruthless in terms of the parameters of the law in fighting terrorism.''
Other officials blame the reestablishment of some Palestine Liberation Organization offices in Jordan, and the factional rivalry among the divided Palestinians for the upsurge in attacks. Still others attribute the attacks to the apparent success of Lebanese Shiite Muslim guerrillas in ending Israel's occupation of south Lebanon.