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Bark of religious parties may be worse than bite. ISRAELI ELECTION

A cartoon in a Tel Aviv newspaper shows the Star of David on an Israeli flag, crowned with the black hat of a Hasidic (ultra-Orthodox) Jew. Menacing eyes peer out from beneath the brim. The cartoon aptly conveys the mixture of curiosity and alarm that have greeted the sudden ascendance of four religious parties, until now marginal in the political life of Israel, after last week's national elections.

Following word that the four parties had netted an astonishing 18 seats in the 120-member Knesset, Israel's parliament - up 50 percent from the last elections in 1984 - many residents of this worldly, high-tech nation uttered an apocalyptic cry.

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Putting Israel in the hands of religious zealots ``is liable to take us back several generations,'' mourned the Hebrew-language Hadashot. It will ``bring about a complete reversal in the character of the country,'' chimed in Maariv, another respected daily.

``I don't recall people being so dazed as they have been in the last few days,'' said a university professor, voicing the prevalent fear that religious extremism and radical nationalism could set Israel on a fundamentally different course.

But several political commentators, citing two considerations, urge that the election results be kept in perspective.

The votes that strengthened the religious parties do not represent the first wave of a Khomeini-style fundamentalist tide in Israel. Instead they reflect the frustration of a relatively small number of Israelis over the failure of the main Labor and Likud parties to find practical solutions to such pressing issues as the 11-month Palestinian uprising.

``You cannot think of this like Iran, with millions of people converting and becoming fundamentalist,'' notes Hebrew University political scientist Ehud Sprinzak. ``It's a case of people, most of whom were religious to begin with, being discouraged by the performance of the two big parties and deciding to follow the rabbis.''

Although the religious parties will exact important concessions for joining a new, presumably Likud-led government, Israelis won't let the religious parties put the country in a social and religious straitjacket.

``The fact that there are tendencies in this direction doesn't mean they will all be fully realized, especially since the agenda [of the religious right] goes well beyond what the average Israeli would like,'' says Charles Liebman, a professor at Tel Aviv's Bar Ilan University who specializes in religious-state relations in Israel.

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Another observer predicts that secular Jews, reacting to Tuesday's vote, will organize to beat back the religious parties in important municipal elections next February.

There is no shortage of explanations for last week's unexpected success of the religious parties, who are now in the driver's seat in ongoing negotiations with both Likud and Labor over formation of the next government.

Moshe Peretz, an Orthodox rabbi affiliated with the Shas party, sees it as a search for religious answers to the societal problems of drugs, crime, and the breakdown of family life in Israel. ``We plucked the right string,'' says Rabbi Peretz, of the party's insistence that ``something has gone very wrong in our lives and that more Torah [Jewish scripture] will solve the problems.''

Others have noted the essentially ethnic appeal of parties like Shas, that have given a political voice to Israel's Sephardic Jews.

Like Professor Sprinzak, other analysts have emphasized popular disenchantment with the ineffectual ``National Unity'' government of the Labor and Likud parties. ``The story of the elections is the story of significant number of Jews, mostly lower class and working people, who have been extremely disillusioned by the two big parties,'' Sprinzak says.

``It's a form of escapism, turning to the rabbis and saying `you take care of it,''' adds Naomi Chazan, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

Whatever the explanation, most observers here agree that instead of solving one problem - the matter of what to do with the occupied territories - last week's election has only created another by exacerbating the latent tensions between secular and religious Jews in Israel.

Questions about the composition of Israel's new governing coalition were raised over the weekend when the spiritual leader of two religious parties, Shas and Degel HaTorah, indicated a possible alliance with Labor. Most observers discount such overtures as a tactic to increase the parties' bargaining leverage with Likud.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin has advocated Labor participation in a coalition with Likud. The prospect is thought unlikely unless Likud leaders decide that the asking price of the religious parties is too high.

``Nothing is locked in, and therefore everything is open,'' says Yitzhak Modai, a Likud minister who is involved with negotiations with the religious parties.

This is not the first time religious parties have held so many seats in the Knesset. It is the first time that two-thirds of the religious bloc has been comprised of the most extreme ultra-Orthodox factions.

In a conversation with reporters yesterday, Modai said that with few exceptions their demands will not go far beyond the 40-year-old ``status quo'' agreement that defines the modus vivendi between the religious and nonreligious parties in Israel. The agreement defines the sphere of religious party influence to include Sabbath and dietary laws, marital issues and religious education.

Emboldened by success at the polls, the religious parties are likely to demand a revision of Israeli's ``Who is a Jew'' law to delegitimize conversions to Judaism performed by Reform and Conservative Rabbis. The two worst scenarios posited by critics of the religious right are a sharp cut in funds from public and higher education that will add to Israel's brain drain, and massive expenditures on housing and infrastructure in the occupied territories, leading to inflationary pressures.

But deep divisions among the religious parties and the slim Likud mandate would limit the coalition's latitude for controversial innovation. The strong negative reaction among secular Jews to the rise of the religious right suggests how easy it will be for the religious parties to overplay their hand, Liebman says.

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