Curbing the Clout of Israeli Right

Premier owes them much, but will Jewish extremists destroy the peace track?

Shortly before dusk at a hillside cemetery, a few hundred followers gather around the grave of Rabbi Meir Kahane. While many in Israel were reflecting on the killing a year ago of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, these Israelis came in reverence for the slain Kahane, whose political party Kach was banned from Israel's parliament for racism.

Among the fiery speakers praising Kahane's message is his son, Benjamin Kahane, who not only opposes Israeli redeployment from the West Bank town of Hebron but also Palestinians living in Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza where they are the majority.

"As long as there are Arabs in the land of Israel, no Jew is safe," says Mr. Kahane. "It would be very good if the people who say they'll cause violence against the Arabs do it," he says of rumored plans of Jewish settlers to upset the Army's withdrawal from most of Hebron.

As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators try to come to an agreement on sharing control of Hebron, a city of 400 Jews and 100,000 Palestinians, there are strong indications that Jewish extremists will try to undermine a transfer of power.

While Islamic fundamentalists once seemed the greatest threat to the peace process, many here think that it is now Jewish ultranationalists who are poised to derail the Oslo peace accords. The accords' aim is to make peace with Palestinians.

The comparison is imperfect. The Jewish extremists' everyday tactics are more along the lines of harassment of Palestinians, death threats to left-wing Israelis, and the like. Besides one Jewish settler's shooting rampage in 1994, they don't go on suicide-bombing missions like their Arab arch-enemies.

Yet unlike the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad (holy war), which oppose Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and his peacemaking, Israel's far-right settlers can take credit for helping elect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu's dilemma

That leaves Mr. Netanyahu trying both to please his uncompromising constituents and to save the peace process from total collapse.

At one end, his own brother-in-law just moved to Hebron to show solidarity with the settlers there.

At the other, most Israelis support the peace process. And because Netanyahu won last May's election with just 50.5 percent of the vote, he can't afford to alienate the political center; he must keep the peace process moving. Furthermore, the ever-influential United States, as well as all Arab nations, are pressuring him to continue on the Oslo path.

Investigating extremists

Because of this pressure, Israel has begun to look for ways to crack down on Jewish radicals. A spokeswoman for the Police Ministry confirmed that "a special unit has been set up ... to deal with Jewish extremists."

It's not as though the Israeli intelligence establishment is just now awakening to right-wing extremists, like Yigal Amir, the man who assassinated Rabin.

Among the tombstones at the Kahane memorial, sources say undercover investigators mixed with the crowd to keep tabs.

Perhaps with some reason. One Kahane mourner said underground nationalists plan to do something in the next couple of weeks "that would seem weird to the outside world."

He would not elaborate. But what is clear is that violence from the Israeli far right has of late become a regular event. Last week, a Jewish settler was charged with manslaughter for allegedly beating an young Palestinian stonethrower with a pistol. In Hebron, a Palestinian house was burned down and an Israeli left-wing parliamentarian was scalded when a Jewish extremist threw hot tea at her face.

Moreover, settlers in Hebron are honest about their beliefs: They believe there will be bloodshed in the event of a redeployment. They will consider any Palestinian with a gun a terrorist. "We have to protect our kids. We're doing anything we can," says Baruch Marzel, a Kahane follower and Hebron settler.

Not all groups violent

Kach is not the only such group that aims to destroy the land-for-peace deals.

Zo Artzeinu (This is Our Land) caused massive civil disturbances last year by blocking roads throughout Israel. Zo Artzeinu's founders, on trial for sedition, now call for more civil disobedience. "We're completely nonviolent; we just want to see people protest hard and angry all over the country," says Shmuel Sackett, a Zo Artzeinu founder. The key is a message to Netanyahu: "We're the ones who put him in power and we could take him out."

It's uncertain if Netanyahu is ready to take on the people who helped get him elected - or whether he thinks he can afford to.

"The settlers worked so hard for Netanyahu's campaign, and he certainly believes that he owes them a lot," says Hebrew University's Ehud Sprinzak, an extremist expert. "In terms of activists in the streets, this population was very important."

The Israeli secret services "still have a big job to do" in terms of reigning in the zealots, he says. "Yasser Arafat has been very effective against his own extremists, but Netanyahu hasn't done anything because those people supported him."

This gives rightist activists new enthusiasm that they might be able to stop the Oslo process.

"We should all try to do something to stop it," says Baruch Brenner, one young Kach disciple at the graveyard.

What would he be willing to do? "If I were to say that there should be physical violence, I would be in jail," says Mr. Brenner.

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