WITH three of its leaders running from police, the government seeking to ban the movement outright, and former political allies turning their backs in embarrassment, never has Israel's most extreme and violent party, Kach, been in a sorrier state.
By killing at least 40 Palestinians as they prayed in a Hebron mosque 11 days ago, Kach member Baruch Goldstein snapped Israelis out of their traditional acceptance of the movement, founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane, as nothing more than a lunatic fringe whose members sometimes acted up.
The sudden change in public attitude - which had long remained unmoved by frequent Kach assaults on Palestinians - is reflected in the Israeli government's new determination to crack down on right-wing extremists, especially in the territories.
Three of the five men slated for detention without trial are leaders of Kach, although none of them have yet been caught. Officials say most of the 18 activists, who are to be disarmed and whose movements will be restricted, belong to Kach or to its splinter group, Kahane Hai.
At the same time, Attorney General Michael Ben Yair is studying the legal feasibility of outlawing Kach and Kahane Hai.
These tentative steps, which Palestinian spokesmen have decried as far from sufficient, will be augmented, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin has hinted, when the government is confident that its use of emergency powers against Jews is legally defensible in the courts.
Meanwhile, the mainstream settler movement in the Israeli-occupied territories is doing its best to distance itself from Kach, whose members are influential in Kiryat Arba, the settlement near Hebron where Goldstein was once a municipal councillor.
Yesha, the main settlers' organization, ``will not cooperate in any way with Kach; we will not let its people participate in our rallies, and we will not have any institutional relations with them,'' Yesha chairman Israel Harel says.
Founded in 1976 by Rabbi Kahane after he immigrated to Israel from the United States, Kach embodies what is left of the late Kahane's fundamentalist Jewish theology and vitriolic hostility toward the Arabs.
The Rabbi's messianic vision of a Jewish nation redeemed through repentance is of less importance to most of his followers than his political message, based on the sanctity of the Land of Israel - including the West Bank and Gaza - and the danger that the Arabs pose to Jews.
Kach advocates the expulsion of all Palestinians from the occupied territories and of all of Israel's Arab citizens, whom Kahane called ``thorns in our eyes.'' The party also scorns liberal democracy as incompatible with its vision of true Judaism, and elevates violence - emblazoned in the Kach symbol of a clenched black fist against a yellow background - to a political virtue.
``Jewish violence in defense of Jewish interest is never bad,'' Kahane wrote - a message that has motivated many a Kach raiding party to rampage through Hebron smashing windows, burning Palestinian-owned cars, and shooting up the streets.
As an antiestablishment protest movement, Kach ``seems to attract bitter and insecure people who project a sense of failure,'' according to Ehud Sprinzak, Israel's foremost expert on radical right-wing groups.
In 1984, Kahane won election to the Knesset (parliament) with 26,000 votes, and in the 1988 elections Kach seemed set to win at least three seats, until the party was barred from contesting the vote on the grounds of its racist and antidemocratic stance.
Since Kahane was assassinated in New York in 1990, the party has dwindled, and now has only a few hundred active supporters, Professor Sprinzak says.
Scoffs Yoel Lerner, a one-time lieutenant of Kahane's: ``The people who are leaders of Kach now, in the Rabbi's lifetime they were just his armor bearers. They are just going through the motions of what they did before.''
ALTHOUGH Kach's political influence has waned, ``there has been a growing desperation'' in its ranks since Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization signed their framework peace accord last September, Sprinzak warns.
``There is a sense of fatalism and frustration, the need for a provocative action that might kill the peace process,'' he says. ``There is a readiness more than before to really kill.''
Goldstein's massacre won praise from many of his neighbors in Kiryat Arba and from Jewish settlers living in the heart of Hebron.
Beyond prosecuting those who publicly supported the massacre, the government is also pondering the removal of the 42 settler families in Hebron. Mr. Rabin is hesitant about forcibly evacuating any settlers, which would almost inevitably spark violent opposition. But in his campaign against Kach, now publicly reviled as never before, he faces few problems.
``It is not hard to strike at them hard,'' Sprinzak says, ``because they don't have that much support.
``The other settlers' only hope is to mobilize enough support among decent Israelis - they can't afford to be cut off from the Israeli public,'' he says.