Despite the Israeli government's crackdown on a few of the most militant settlers in the wake of the massacre, there are hundreds if not thousands more who would be willing to use violence to oppose Rabin's policies.
I watched these militant settler movements grow when I was based in Jerusalem as a Middle East correspondent from 1977-83, and in the years since. The militants flourished under the hawkish Likud government, which shared their ideology. The settlements were intended as a message to the Palestinians that Israeli occupation was permanent; most serve little or no security purpose, but force the Israeli army to deploy large-scale resources to protect the settlers.
The Likud also forked out huge subsidies to attract large numbers of nonideological settlers in search of cheaper housing. The fate of the settlements is supposed to be negotiated in a later phase of peace talks.
Most visible among the settler radical fringe is Kach, the movement of the late Rabbi Meier Kahane, which publicly advocated using violence to drive the Arabs out of the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel. The Hebron murderer, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, was a Kahane disciple. The Israeli government has ordered five other disciples detained without trial (a tactic usually reserved for Arab militants) and about three dozen others to be disarmed or banned from the West Bank.
But those numbers are only the tip of the iceberg, and not likely to derail militants bent on mayhem. Kach sympathizers in the United States have attacked Israel's ambassador to Washington with eggs, and threatened Israel's consul general in New York City, while Prime Minister Rabin has received anonymous death threats in Israel.
Right wing ultranationalists call Rabin a traitor for failing to protect Jewish settlers on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and bargaining with the Palestinians. Goldstein told friends in Kiryat Arba before the massacre that a formula had to be found for blowing up the peace process. And he was not the first militant settler to try.
During my years in Jerusalem, three Jewish militants were caught trying to blow up the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of Islam's holiest sites, an act that would have destroyed any future hopes for Arab-Israeli peace.
A settler underground car-bombed two Palestinian mayors on the West Bank, blowing one's legs off and maiming the other. The head of Israel's internal intelligence service resigned in part because then Prime Minister Menahem Begin wouldn't let him try to penetrate the radical settler movements.
The same settler underground movement opened fire on three students in Hebron, killing them and wounding 30 others. Some of the underground members later got caught trying to place bombs in Arab buses.
Almost commonplace, then and now, were settler rampages through Arab villages breaking car windows, shooting animals, or occasionally people. Sometimes these attacks are revenge for an attack on a settler, sometimes they are meant to teach a lesson.
The most militant settlers provoke violence by repeatedly demonstrating their contempt for Arab townspeople and villagers. Their attitude echoes the ultranationalist settler from Kiryat Arba who told me bluntly a decade ago that there was one law for Jews and another for Arabs: "Our law is Torah, which supersedes any other law." He made it plain that Torah outranked any parliamentary laws that might restrict settlements.
While the most serious settler crimes are punished, sentences are usually light. Andmost vigilante operations are never punished at all.
Numerous settlements are known as bastions of hardline ideologues. So the settlements have become symbols to the Palestinians as well as to militant Jews. Settlers have been frequent targets for attacks by Arab fanatics who also want to derail peace talks, prompting bitter charges from settler representatives that the Israeli army can't protect them. This makes it nearly impossible for Rabin to accede to Palestinian demands that settlers be totally disarmed.
But the minimal measures the Israeli cabinet has authorized against hardline settlers won't be enough. Unless Rabin confronts the militants now - detaining, disarming, or banning many more from the West Bank, and removing some militant settlements from urban Arab areas - the fanatics will gain the upper hand. Moreover, all Jewish vigilantes must be arrested and tried.
If the Israeli leader undertakes such measures, he risks a civil war between militants and mainstream Jews. But in the wake of the Hebron massacre, Israeli public opinion would probably back Prime Minister Rabin. If he wants the peace process to continue, he must confront the fanatics before it is too late.