Anyone familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian struggle appreciates the threat to the peace process posed by extremists among Israeli settlers on the West Bank. From the Israeli far right came the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister gunned down in 1995 as he moved toward peace with the Palestinians. One of Rabin's great sins in the eyes of extremists was his willingness to confront the incendiary issue of the settlements spread across the barren landscape.
The torque of the settlements as a political issue never disappears. They are, once again, front and center as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon seeks to close down those in Gaza while allowing a huge expansion of another on the West Bank. The timing of ''Israel's Next War?," a ''
''Frontline" excels at weaving together disparate threads of the extremist settler saga, presented over the years in isolated news stories, into a coherent look at the underground movement. The program includes chilling interviews with those bent on a holy war against the secular Israeli state as well as against Palestinians living on what they consider the ancient Kingdom of Israel. Israeli security worries about assassination attempts against Sharon, the most heavily guarded prime minister in Israeli history, and plots to blow up Muslim holy sites on what Jews revere as the Temple Mount.
''Only chaos can change the situation," maintains one extremist settler.
''The Israeli secular entity has to be destroyed. God can't reveal himself until it's all wiped out. As long as the State of Israel stays as it is, there will be no redemption."
Words like ''redemption," ''sanctify," and ''revenge" marble the vocabulary of these people, as they do those of other extremists. These settlers carry the absolutist gleam in their eyes that we've come to view with trepidation from ''true believers" everywhere. Another settler says this about his philosophy: ''Two eyes for an eye, teeth for a tooth."
And then some. In 2002, Israeli police thwarted a plot hatched by extremist settlers to detonate a bomb at a Palestinian girls' school in East Jerusalem, timed to explode at 7:30 a.m. to kill the most children. While the three men initially arrested are now serving prison sentences, others whom authorities believe were involved in the plot were acquitted for lack of evidence.
It must be said that while deploring this heinous scheme, one cannot forget the scores of heartless killings committed within Israel by Palestinian terrorists, with no discernible effort by the Palestinian Authority to stop them.
Many of the Israeli extremists are followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane, murdered in New York in 1990 by an Arab assassin. Kahane preached the expulsion of all Arabs from the Holy Land, and in 1994 Israel declared his party a terrorist organization.
''I think the day will come when the secret service and the government will look for Jews who are willing to risk their lives and go into Arab villages and kick them out, kill them . . . and we have thousands of civilians with the military know-how to instigate a mega-attack against Arabs," says Mike Guzofsky, a Kahanist and transplanted New Yorker.
It is this vision that keeps Yitzhak Dar, head of the Jewish section of the Israeli security service, up at night: ''The phenomena that we're talking about are not on the fringe," he says. ''The glue that holds them together is ideology. It's a very, very dangerous ideology. . . . When they try to put it into action, through the murder of the prime minister, through the murder of the Arabs, through the massacre at the Hebron mosque, it's the beginning of the end of a system that can defend itself."
A rough symmetry within their respective societies between Israeli extremists bent on murder and Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group, is inescapable. And while Hamas has been far more lethal thus far, the impending threat from these Israelis looms ominous.
At the end of the day, there is reason to be worried about Israeli terrorism as well as its Palestinian counterpart, each primed to explode if and when the two sides ever near a true settlement.