SITTING in her tiny, crowded apartment in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, Rachel Klein, a social worker and grandmother, seemed an unlikely political rebel. Yet she spoke almost warmly of her days defying the Israeli government at Yamit, the last Israeli stronghold of resistance against return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in 1982. ``I did as much as I could with my last bit of strength to keep it,'' she recalled. She and hundreds of others had traveled from the West Bank to back up local settlers. Some formed human barricades. Others hurled rocks or broken glass at Israeli troops. Twelve loaded an air-raid shelter with explosives and threatened to blow themselves up rather than leave.
``I took this stand on the fundamental point that this is the land that God gave to us and we can't give it to others.'' Then she made a pledge: ``We won't allow the same thing to happen with Judea and Samaria,'' - the Israeli names for the occupied West Bank. ``We can't forsake our God-given mission.''
Rachel Klein's religious rationale is no longer unusual in Israel. Synagogue and state are still officially separate. But Jewish fundamentalists, who have redefined the basic reason for existence of the state and the individual in religious terms, are changing the face of Israeli politics.
``Jewish fundamentalism remains ideologically the single most coherent and vigorous political force in Israel,'' explained Dartmouth professor Dan Lustick.
The growing role of religion in Israeli politics indicates that even democracies are susceptible to fundamentalist trends:
Since 1984, the strength of various religious political parties has grown to the point that their swing vote can decide whether Labor or Likud will form a government and often what legislation will pass in the Knesset. Religious agendas must thus increasingly be considered by the main secular parties.
Ultra-Orthodox Haredim (``God-fearers'') have clashed with police in Jerusalem's ``Sabbath wars'' over cinemas showing films on the Jewish day of worship. They were also linked to bombings of bus shelters showing bikini-clad women and newsstands selling secular papers.
The Haredim have proposed legislation, which has met with marginal success so far, to bar non-Orthodox converts from automatically qualifying for Israeli citizenship - in effect deciding who is a Jew. Ironically, the ultra-Orthodox do not recognize Israel's right to exist before the Messiah's coming.
The Tehiya (Renaissance) party, formed in response to the 1979 Camp David treaty, is now the third-largest political party. Though technically secular, many of its members use biblical justification in policy decisions.
Rabbi Meir Kahane, once on the extremist fringe, has been a Knesset member since 1984. His Kach party believes Israel should be a Jewish state, not a democracy, and that Arabs should be expelled. Analysts here said his personal popularity is waning, but support for his ideas, particularly among the young, continues to grow.
Many analysts, however, believe fundamentalism, drawing largely on middle-class, well-educated Orthodox Jews, provides the most dynamic political alternative to the traditionally secular and socialist Zionist tradition.
Fundamentalism has grown since the 1967 Middle East war, according to Hebrew University's Ehud Sprinzak. ``Israel's swift victory, which brought about the reunification of Jerusalem, the return to Israel of biblical Judea and Samaria, the conquest of Sinai, and the takeover of the Golan Heights, was perceived by many Israelis as an unworldly event,'' he explained. ``The God of Israel had once again shown his might. In one strike he placed the whole traditional Eretz Yisrael (Greater Israel) - the object of prayers and yearnings for thousands of years - in the hands of his loyal servants.''
This new faction within Judaism saw the outcome as a fulfillment of God's 5,000-year-old promise to Abraham and a signal that the Messianic age - the time of the Messiah and man's redemption - had begun. ``The state is, in effect, sanctified,'' said Aviezer Ravitsky, a Jewish philosophy professor at Hebrew University.
Adherents believe that Israel should not simply be a nation shaped by Western conventions to serve as a refuge for Judaism in the aftermath of the Holocaust and later persecution elsewhere. God, this view holds, guided his chosen people to victory so they could instead finally re-create the Kingdom of Israel.
This new political and social force was reflected in the formation of the Faithful of the Temple Mount in the late 1960s and Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) in 1974. It has since been most visible in the Gush Emunim's settlement of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, initially in defiance of the Israeli government. The primary goal was not to enhance security in a hostile Arab environment, but to permanently secure biblical lands.
``In the settlement of Judea and Samaria they saw not only a political act but a religious and metaphysical commandment,'' Mr. Sprinzak explained. ``Pioneering settlement meant, according to their theology, a direct contribution to the imminent process of redemption.''
From a fledgling movement centered on outspoken rabbis in the 1970s, Gush Emunim now claims more than 10,000 members. Membership has leveled off, but the bloc has helped entrench its political goals by attracting 65,000 Israelis of diverse political and religious orientations to West Bank and Gaza settlements.
Gush Emunim is not affiliated with a party, but it is now de facto part of the political mainstream. The Jewish settlements have independent local councils, corporations that employ hundreds, and defense and social-service groups.
By institutionalizing their religious ideals, fundamentalists have thus changed public debate on the nation's future and on the criteria for regional peace.
``In the late 1960s the vast majority of Israeli Jews regarded fundamentalist, ultranationalist, and religious beliefs and political programs as bizarre extremism,'' Dartmouth professor Lustick explained.
Now, however, some 20 percent of Israeli Jews embrace them. Another 10 to 15 percent consider these policies and opinions acceptable, even if they do not fully agree with them. And another 10 to 15 percent firmly back the key Gush Emunim demand that no territorial concessions be made in the West Bank and Gaza.''
Varying degrees of public support for what is still a distinct minority has concerned some analysts about the future potential for violence, perhaps ironically, over the peace issue. The 1979 peace accord with Egypt led to violence at Yamit.
And in April 1984, Israel's national radio revealed the stunning news of a plot by Israeli extremists to blow up six Arab buses during rush hour. Twenty-seven Israelis, who had formed the first Jewish terrorist network since the state was founded, were later linked to car bombings of two West Bank mayors, an attack on Hebron's Islamic College, and a plot to bomb the Temple Mount's Dome of the Rock mosque, Islam's third-holiest site.
The ``underground,'' as it was dubbed here, were all members of Gush Emunim, which had never advocated violence. Indeed, ``the great majority of settlers considered the plot terrorism, as if fighting God himself,'' said Israel Harel, chairman of the Settlements Council. But the settlers do believe that a land-for-peace deal with the Arabs would be treachery of a divine mission. The extremists had taken it one step further.
``Their object was both tactical and millenarian,'' Sprinzak explained. ``They believed that destruction of the Muslim holy place would nullify the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, with the result that the Sinai would remain in Israeli hands. But they also cherished the dream of creating the conditions for the final redemption of the Jewish people.''
Their acts were thus not terrorism, but heroic duties to God to bring Israel and Judaism back on course. If the underground had not been uncovered and tried in 1984, ``it would have likely become a Jewish IRA,'' Sprinzak predicted.
Yet Pincas Inbari, a journalist who covers the issue, cautioned against optimism: ``There was and still is broad support in the settlements and Israel proper for the actions and motives of the underground. It may be under control for the moment, but the feelings behind it are stronger than ever.''
Local analysts claim two issues offer potential for fundamentalist action: First, Israelis must ultimately decide whether the nation is Jewish or democratic, for, as Arabs gain in the demographic race, it can not continue to be both. Second, if peace talks ever get off the ground, Israelis must decide whether they are prepared to exchange land for peace with the Arabs.
At this stage, fundamentalists do not appear to favor turning Israel into a theocracy; the vast majority would settle for a Jewish state governed by secular forces, analysts said. Yet they do seek greater representation to influence policy.
The peace issue is more volatile. Sprinzak, Inbari, and others suggested that the commitment to keeping Judea and Samaria is now so deep that the traditional secular conflict could eventually become, in the eyes of a minority, a holy war fought in the name of God.
Rachel Klein has never used a gun and said she never wants to. But if returning the West Bank becomes a possibility, she noted, ``I can't guarantee I wouldn't pick up a gun. Return of Judea and Samaria would be going against Jewish law. It would be a threat to Jewish life.''
Robin Wright is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Gershon Solomon: `nationalist' activist with a `mission from God'
Even before the 1967 war ended, Gershon Solomon went to pray on the recaptured Temple Mount in Jerusalem. ``Every important thing in our history happened at this place,'' he said.
But Jews were soon barred from the Temple Mount, as Israel allowed Muslim authorities to retain jurisdiction over the site of the First and Second Jewish temples, for 13 centuries covered by two Islamic mosques. The Dome of the Rock mosque marks the place where Muhammad the prophet is said to have ascended.
Mr. Solomon now heads the Faithful of the Temple Mount, which seeks to restore Jewish jurisdiction. Its membership is only a few hundred, but even Israelis who scoff at it concede it has thousands of sympathizers. Many analysts predict that the Temple Mount will become a focal point for both the internal conflict over Israel's identity and the Arab-Israeli dispute over Jerusalem and a Palestinian homeland. Clashes erupted there last month when Solomon led a group to pray there for the first time since the 1967 war. In an interview, Solomon said:
On the movement: ``My struggle is not just for the physical site, but for the broader mission. The Temple Mount is only a symbol.... The movement is not secular and not religious. It is nationalist.'' Yet in the next breath he added, ``Our mission comes from God.''
On religion and politics: ``We have two choices: First, to be secular. I am afraid of our present life. If we continue as we are, ... [Israel's future] will be like ancient Greece. ... there is a vacuum of culture, an imitation of American culture on the outside - in music, writing, movies, dress - and a vacuum inside.
``Second, the other way - and the right way - is to make the connection between the principles of the Bible and the presence of Israel, to revive the culture based on the Bible.... I hope for a new Jew with roots in our 5,000 years of culture. We must synthesize our past and future.''
On history: ``The reason for suffering in the European Diaspora was because God did not want them to have roots there.... One of the reasons we lost in Lebanon was due to the return of the Sinai. Our economic problems are also due in part to the Sinai return.''
On activism: ``All our activities are legal. We do not believe in violence. But if you don't do something, nothing will happen. We must do something to have the messiah come. He will not come alone. During 2,000 years we did nothing and nothing happened. If you fight for a principle, God will be with you.''
In Part 2 of the Monitor's series on religion and politics (Nov. 5, Page 18), Dartmouth professor Ian Lustick was misidentified as Dan Lustick, because of a keyboarding error. The Monitor regrets the error.