RABBI Meir Kahane came to the town of Qiryat Gat in the northern Negev desert a few nights ago so confident of a big welcome that he did not bring along his usual busload or two of yellow-shirted Kach Party activists. What he found instead were a few dozen supporters virtually lost in a sea of anti-Kahane demonstrators inviting him to leave Israel and the Arabs to remain.
The fortunes of Kahane have worsened perceptibly in past weeks. Political momentum has slowed for the Brooklyn-born founder of the violence-prone Jewish Defense League, who now campaigns on a program to expel all Arabs from Israeli-controlled territory.
In the Jezreel Valley city of Afula, whistling, shouting demonstrators -- most from nearby kibbutzim -- were kept away from Kahane's outnumbered minions by police barricades. Two nights later, Kahane came to the Tel Aviv suburb of Givat Taim, where more than 10,000 foes swarmed and seethed about the hundred or so Kach people.
None of this is coincidental. Faced with rising support for Kahane in the polls, and indications that as many as 40 percent of high-school-age Israeli youths share his extreme anti-Arab bias, Israel's political establishment finally concluded that it had achieved little by ignoring Kahane at home while passing him off abroad as a figment of the Western media.
Coinciding with the public demonstrations, and probably of greater long-run efficacy, have been intellectual and political assaults upon Kahane's positions and his Knesset sanctuary.
Kahane's campaign to expel Arabs has been exposed as simplistic racial demagoguery rather than a logical mandate of Zionism. Bills he has introduced to jail Arabs ``guilty'' of sex or marriage with Jews, and to ban Arabs from Jewish jobs and neighborhoods, have been effectively criticized as ideological cousins of ``Hitler's Nuremberg laws.''
Jews in the United States, from whom Kahane draws 75 percent of his funds, have been urged to think twice before contributing to him.
Nearing final Knesset passage is a law aimed at Kahane that would bar parties stressing racist themes from the ballot.
The anti-Kahane forces were jolted to action by an August poll showing that Kach, now with one seat in the 120-member Knesset, could win as many as 11 in new elections. This suggests that after an election closely divided between left and right, the Likud's ability to form a new government could depend on the Knesset votes commanded by Kahane.
Kahane has bragged that he would use that bargaining power to obtain a key ministry, employing his Cabinet leverage to win the prime ministership after subsequent elections.
Kahane's appeal is based on raw emotion; his political theology, as with most fanaticism, is simple and internally consistent.
For much of the past 14 months he has been something of a political ambulance-chaser, running from site to site of each Arab attack against Jew. He has endorsed the work of the ``Jewish underground'' and others whose anti-Arab activities have included cold-blooded murder.
Kahane contends that no Arab can accept the notion of a Jewish state in Palestine, and that the high Arab birthrate warns of a day when the Arabs will gain power through the franchise.
Expelling the Arabs now may not be a democratic procedure, Kahane says, but the very notion of a Jewish, Zionist state is inconsistent with democracy.
More than half of Kahane's new support comes from former Likud voters disenchanted by their party's national-unity coalition with Labor, people searching for a charismatic figure in the Begin mold. New voters have also flocked to Kahane, people born during an era of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Many of these Kahane fans might be surprised to learn that Kahane pledges to rid the country of its secular democratic parties once a Knesset majority is his.
Most thinking Israelis acknowledge that tensions and contradictions exist in a Zionist state that also pledges full, equal citizenship for its Arab minority.
But these same Israelis maintain that the mature mind accepts the existence of tensions and contradictions in life and in politics and tries to deal with them in a humane and compassionate way. The fanatic, on the other hand, presses for the total elimination of the cause of such tensions and contradictions, in the process creating a regime far more onerous than the one he has replaced.
Most Israelis would be appalled at the notion of an Arab majority within Israel. But rather than the mass expulsion of a resident population -- a remedy invoked time and again against Jews over the millenniums -- many here urged that Israel restrict its territorial ambitions to an area within which a Jewish majority can be maintained in perpetuity.
Overwhelmingly, Israelis see the challenge of preserving a Jewish state in terms of providing a homeland within which Jews will want to live and their children will want to remain.
Kahanism is not yet a spent force in Israeli life.
But recent events suggest the rabbi will be fought hand to hand every step of the way. In Israel, the reserves of democratic will may be deeper than he imagined.
C. Robert Zelnick is the chief correspondent for ABC News in Israel.