AS Israel's ultraorthodox religious Jews struggle to retain their political influence at next June's parliamentary elections, an unexpected issue has arisen to divide their ranks and cloud their prospects: the return of the Messiah.
All over the country, red and yellow billboards have sprung up, exhorting passersby to "prepare for the coming of the Messiah." They have been paid for by followers of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who heads the Hassidic Habad movement from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
At the same time, the rebbe's followers are organizing a worldwide petition, urging Rabbi Schneerson to reveal himself as the Messiah. This campaign has stirred up turmoil in the black-hatted, dark-suited world of ultraorthodoxy, and provoked charges of heresy.
"Throughout the generations, Jews have hoped for the [Messiah's] coming," said Rabbi Eliezer Schach, the ultimate spiritual authority for all ultraorthodox Jews except Habad members, last week. "And here comes someone who says he is already here. This is a false Messiah. We must boycott him."
"You don't push your candidate for Messiah on billboards. This is not like a primary" added Michael Hasten, a follower of Rabbi Schach's, at a meeting the rabbi held here last Sunday.
The imminence - or not - of the Messiah's arrival has political implications that bode ill for the ultraorthodox parties.
The dispute over the affair is threatening unity efforts in the ultraorthodox camp, important in the light of new electoral rules that make it harder for small parties to win Knesset seats.
Holding the balance of power with their 13 seats in the current Knesset (parliament), the ultraorthodox have exerted political influence out of all proportion to the 5 percent of the population that they comprise.
The party that Schach formed in 1988, Degel Hatora, is now seeking to join up with the other Ashkenazic (European) ultraorthodox party, Agudat Yisrael, which enjoyed Schneerson's support at the last elections, and which is hoping for his backing again.
"I don't expect the same sort of enthusiasm as before" from Schneerson, Agudat Yisrael leader and deputy Labor Minister Menachem Porush said yesterday. "But there is no doubt we will have his help."
Although the Lubavitcher rebbe's aides say he has not yet decided whether to back any party at the June elections, the prospect of any sort of relation with the Habad leader is anathema to Schach and Degel Hatora.
But with the electoral threshold higher now than it was in the 1988 election, requiring any party to win at least 1.5 percent of the vote to gain a Knesset seat, it is in the small religious parties' interests to band together.
This compounds the more general political trouble in which the ultraorthodox parties find themselves, after enjoying unprecedented influence in the Knesset.
This year 270,000 new immigrants from the former Soviet Union will be eligible to vote, and hardly any of them are religious.
At the same time, Schneerson's support for Agudat Yisrael was worth three seats for the party, according to Ilan Greilsammer, a teacher at Bar Ilan University and author of a book on the ultraorthodox community.
"If he is not promising his blessing in return for a vote for Agudat Yisrael, as he did last time, the party is going to lose votes," he predicts.
By the same token, if the rebbe is not so clearly identified with Agudat Yisrael, then Degel Hatora supporters will have less motivation to vote against him, Dr. Greilsammer says.
Meanwhile Shas, the party of oriental ultraorthodox Jews, which became the third largest group in the Knesset in 1988, is suffering from financial scandals. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, a prominent Shas leader, is under investigation for alleged misappropriation of government funds.
"A lot of people who voted for Shas last time now feel they are gangsters," Greilsammer says.
The debate over the return of the Messiah, which has erupted with such ferocity in recent weeks, is not new. For several years an incongruous brownstone mansion has stood by the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway - a replica of the Habad headquarters in Brooklyn - awaiting Schneerson's first ever arrival in Israel.
His followers make no secret of their belief that the rebbe is indeed the Messiah, and point to recent events such as the fall of communism and the flood of Jewish immigrants to Israel, or the way Israel emerged virtually unscathed from Scud attacks during the Gulf war, as harbingers of an imminent Messianic age.
Other branches of Judaism are scandalized by such talk. "In our religion, if anyone says he is the Messiah, you take him to the psychiatrist," says Rabbi Menachem Levin, a confidant of Schach's.
Deep in the ultraorthodox consciousness, Messianic talk reverberates with the potential for disaster, religious experts say. In the 2nd century, Bar Kokba's acclamation as the Messiah contributed to the doomed rebellion against the Romans which led to the Jews' expulsion from Judea. In the 17th century, Shabbtai Zvi convinced much of world Jewry that he was the Messiah before converting to Islam.
Today's dispute over Schneerson's status appears unlikely to provoke such calamitous outcomes. But it has added fuel to a fire that may well consume much of the ultraorthodox parties' political bargaining power in the next Israeli Knesset.