THE recent Israeli elections may spell doom for the ideology that has underpinned successive governments here for the past decade and a half and rendered peace with the Palestinians impossible.
The concept of Eretz Israel, Hebrew for "the Land of Israel," stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, is in danger.
Israel's incoming prime minister, Labor Party leader Yitzhak Rabin, does not share the vision of the departing right-wing Likud government: Jewish settlements the length and breadth of the occupied territories that would redeem the Jews' claim to the whole of the promised land.
Mr. Rabin's readiness to entertain the prospect of territorial compromise with the Palestinians means "the elections may be the beginning of the decline of the Eretz Israel mystique," says Hebrew University political scientist Ehud Sprinzak.
Land of Israel devotees, such as Daniela Weiss of the Gush Emunim settlers movement, acknowledge that "from an ideological point of view, there has been a deterioration." But that will only sharpen settlers' commitment to the cause, she says. "There is room for all sorts of initiatives, maneuvers, and imaginative solutions. There is a very active element among us, and imagination works harder when there is pressure."
Doubts about Eretz Israel, a concept that has long sustained the Likud, have already begun to emerge within the party. Defense Minister Moshe Arens, announcing his retirement from politics, unexpectedly said late last month that he would be willing to give up the Gaza Strip - clearly a part of Eretz Israel. He conceded that "a part of the public does not see the slogan [Land of Israel] as an adequate or sufficient response in grappling with the problems associated with the Palestinians in the territories ."
Mr. Arens was echoing the sentiments expressed a day after the election by Likud politician Meir Shitreet, when he argued that "the Land of Israel is not a religion." When Ezer Weizman, a former defense minister, expressed such an opinion in 1980, he was expelled from Likud.
Since the Likud's election defeat, debate on this subject has become acceptable for the first time. There are many in the party who ascribe its downfall to the precedence that outgoing Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir gave to the Land of Israel, over social and economic programs for poor Israelis.
"Likud will have to decide what its major battle ground will be," says Zeev Chafets, a columnist for Jerusalem Report magazine. "With the elections, it has gone from a party in which Eretz Israel was the primary organizing principle, to a party where it might very well not be. The election showed that the number of people for whom the Land of Israel is more important than everything else is far smaller than anyone thought."
Labor governments established many Jewish settlements for security reasons in the occupied territories after their capture in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict. But it was only under Likud's Menachem Begin that the state of Israel laid claim to the Land of Israel in a manner that would make it impossible to make peace with the Palestinians, and accede to their competing claims.
"Settlement throughout the entire Land of Israel is for security and by right," read the guidelines of a 1979 government committee on settlement activities. A heavy Jewish presence in the occupied territories "enhances both internal and external security, as well as making concrete and realizing our right to the Land of Israel."
Over the years, "the Land of Israel became a phrase that took on almost magical political connotations, quasi-religious," Mr. Chafets says.
Under its umbrella have gathered all those who favor maintaining Israeli control over the territories. They include religious fundamentalists, who argue simply that God gave the land to Abraham; less religious but culturally traditional Jews with a mystical and emotional attachment to Eretz Israel, Likud supporters with an ideological commitment bound up with historical justifications, and security-minded hawks.
Though Labor includes many hawks, their concern is for the military safety of the state of Israel, not the biblical right of the Jews to the Land of Israel. It is this attitude that has led Rabin to promise a quick agreement with the Palestinians on autonomy, and to look ahead to an eventual land-for-peace deal.
In the wake of Labor's victory Ms. Weiss, the settlement activist, predicts "much agitation in Judea and Samaria," the Hebrew name for the West Bank, but does not see her dream of Eretz Israel as under "a concrete threat."
Apart from anything else, she points out, the current Middle East peace process, even if it keeps to schedule, foresees a five-year interim-autonomy phase before final settlement. Rabin says he hopes to grant Palestinians autonomy within a year, so any territorial handover is at least six years away.
But if the peace process gains the momentum that Rabin hopes to give it, "Eretz Israel will become a sentiment of narrow scope," predicts Dan Pattir, a former spokesman for Begin.
That itself might encourage Mr. Shamir's successor as Likud leader - whoever he might be - "to find a diluted version" of the Land of Israel concept, "and to talk of different priorities," suggests Professor Sprinzak.
In the end, however, everything will hinge on how the autonomy talks go, and how autonomy works in practice if it is implemented. If the process fails, Land of Israel activists will feel vindicated. "If it succeeds," says Mr. Pattir, "it will push the hard-liners to the margins."