'Of course we want peace. But how do we get it?'

Israelis will go to the polls tomorrow with the bus bomb atrocities uppermost in their minds. Patrick Cockburn returns to the Jaffa road in Jerusalem, scene of the carnage in March, to gauge the mood of ordinary voters
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The Independent Online
It woke me up just before 6.30am. There was the sound of an explosion followed by police sirens. It was the second suicide bomb on a bus in the Jaffa road in Jerusalem in the space of a week. The first had blown up half a mile away. But the bomb on 3 March was just round the corner from my apartment. When I arrived, the smouldering carcass of the red and white number 18 bus was still in the middle of the road, soldiers throwing white sheets over the burnt bodies of some of the 18 people who had died on their way to work.

It was this second Jerusalem bomb - followed by a bomb in the Dezingoff centre in Tel Aviv the next day - which ensured that tomorrow's election in Israel will be so close. "Israelis were frightened as I have never seen them before," said a political scientist. In the television debate on Sunday between the candidates for the prime minister's office, it was the question of personal security that Binyamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition, repeatedly threw in the face of Shimon Peres, the Prime Minister. "Our children are afraid of getting on a bus," he said.

In the hours after the 3 March bomb, I talked to the shopkeepers in the four blocks closest to where the bus had been ripped apart. Some were trying to salvage their goods and sweep up the shards of shattered glass from their windows. Others, a little farther from the blast, opened for business as a point of principle to show they were not intimidated. Ari Rosenfeld, a religious Jew and owner of a toy shop, was watching angry crowds shouting for Mr Peres to resign. "This is not the way," he said. "We should not be so impulsive. Arafat will have to do something, or Israelis will abandon Peres. He will have to get rid of Hamas or there won't be peace."

Three months later, there are few signs on Jaffa road to show where the number 18 bus exploded. The broken plate glass of one shop, which was unoccupied at the time, is still lying where it fell behind a rusty iron grill. Two bored looking women soldiers with their submachine guns were guarding a bus stop. In his toyshop Mr Rosenfeld, an amiable and intelligent man, said: "I am going to vote for Bibi. It will be a close result, but if he gets in things will get better. It will not just be take, take, take by the Arabs." Palestinians sealed off in Gaza and the West Bank might be surprised to learn that they have been so generously treated, but there is no doubt that Mr Rosenfeld's view is widely shared. "The security of our children is in the hands of Arafat," Mr Netanyahu has warned.

But Mr Rosenfeld went on to make a point which shows the difficult path Mr Netanyahu has had to tread in recent weeks. "Of course we all want peace," he said. "Who wants their children to be always in the army or in danger of being blown up? The question is how do we get to peace." Polls at the weekend showed - as they have done consistently in the past - that 60 per cent of Israelis favour the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians. But Israelis, like Mr Rosenfeld, see peace largely in terms of personal security. That is why during the election campaign Likud and Labour had almost interchangeable slogans on the theme of "Peace with Security".

In his stationer's shop farther down the Jaffa road, Ezekiel, a silver- haired man in his fifties, said that he thought Shimon Peres would win, "but it will be close both for him and the Labour party [for the first time in Israel the prime minister and the candidates for the Knesset will be be elected separately]. A close result will be bad. It means instability. The smaller parties will bargain. The religious [ultra-orthodox Jews] will want money for their yeshivas [colleges] and will try to turn Jerusalem into their own city."

As for the outcome of tomorrow's election, Ezekiel said he had heard on the morning radio that ultra-orthodox rabbis - the religious parties get about 14 per cent of the vote - had come out strongly for Mr Netanyahu. The Arab parties - another 12 per cent of the vote - said they were backing Mr Peres. "So it is all up to the Russian Jewish immigrants and they are not happy. They voted for Labour last time, but they feel they have been badly treated. I speak Russian and I know that many of them are living in very bad conditions."

Vera, who came to Israel from St Petersburg four years ago, confirmed this. She did not like either party much. Blushing slightly she quoted an Israeli Russian writer as saying that "Labour and Likud are alike as the two cheeks of the same bottom". The real problem is jobs. She herself was trained as an economist and is working in a shop in one of Jerusalem's better hotels. On the whole she said she is inclined to vote for Mr Peres and the Labour party "because they get on well with the US and other countries. That is not true of Netanyahu."

Pollsters admit that they do not know what the 650,000 Russian immigrants - more than 10 per cent of the Israeli population - will do. Natan Sharansky, leader of the Israel Bealiya party for Russian immigrants, has refused to back either Mr Peres or Mr Netanyahu. Few of those who came since 1989 are ardent Zionists. Most say they came for economic reasons. An aide of Mr Sharansky points out that if you ask Russians "if they worry about security, they all say they do. But if you give them a blank sheet of paper and ask them to list their concerns in order of priority, then economic and social issue are first and security is well down the list."

Vera admitted she is not very nationalistic, though some of her friends were. She said she thinks that the best solution is for Israel to have a proper frontier, not including the West Bank. "I don't really feel it is our country. When my friends say it is, I ask them why they don't go to Ramallah or Hebron [Palestinian towns], but of course they have never been there." Overall, she said, Russian immigrants have to exert their strength as a community, just like "the Jews from Morocco, Tunisia or Iraq. They help each other."

There is no doubt that there is fear among the people who work and shop in the slightly down-at-heel stores on the half mile of Jaffa road between where the two suicide bombs exploded. Israelis are more stoic than they appear on television, which focuses on traditional expressions of ritualised grief at funerals. But even three months after the last bomb a liberally minded professor in Jerusalem said: "I still drive my daughter to school every day. I can't endure the thought of her getting on a bus by herself."

If Mr Netanyahu wins the election tomorrow, it will be through the exploitation of this fear - a word he used 10 times in the 14 minutes during which he spoke in Sunday's debate. This was something of a change of tack. After the bus bombs, the Likud leader was praised for his low-key reaction. He was trying to rehabilitate his reputation, which was badly damaged in the eyes of many Israelis by his rabble rousing addresses to crowds of settlers and extreme right-wingers in the weeks before Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. "With all respect for theatrical performance, I was embarrassed for him," wrote Nahum Barnea, a widely read columnist in the daily Yediot Aharanot, of the TV debate. He accused Mr Netanyahu of exacerbating Israelis' sense of insecurity for his own political ends. "A real patriot would not weaken the stamina of Israeli society which is shocked by the waves of terror," he said.

On Jaffa road yesterday, there were also misgivings about Mr Netanyahu. In the entrance of a newsagent's opposite Zion Square, an argument was going on between the mother of the proprietor and a young male customer. Looking on, the owner of the shop remarked: "Like a lot of people, he will split his vote. He will vote for Peres and a right-wing party." Asked if he had watched the television debate, he made a disgusted mew with his lips. There is no doubt about Mr Netanyahu's forcefuless, eloquence and staying power. But many Israelis - and not all from the intelligentsia - shudder at his mixture of menace and charm, his cold dark eyes above his full feminine lips.

But the Jaffa Road district should be a bastion for Mr Netanyahu. Jerusalem is a right-wing city. For a decade there has been so-called "white flight" of liberal Jews to the suburbs and to Tel Aviv. Many of the shoppers and shopkeepers have skull caps. Others wear the dark suits and hats of the Haredim (ultra-orthodox). It is right beside the ultra-orthodox stronghold of Mea She'arim, where anybody driving a car on the Sabbath is attacked by stone-throwing children.

But even here I got the impression from the people I talked to that many on the right find Mr Netanyahu too glib, inexperienced and, above all, imprecise about what he would do to provide the peace with security he so often promises. On the other hand, nobody is putting money on Mr Peres.

The Israelis on the Jaffa road are religious, but then so is much of the rest of the country. Foreigners see Israeli politics in terms of conflicts between left and right, ultra-nationalists and flexible nationalists. But Israeli society is more deeply divided between secular and religious, between the fifth of the population who go to the synagogue every day and the fifth who do not go at all. It is these divisions which give Israeli party politics its ferocity. For the religious right, giving up the West Bank under the Oslo agreement was surrendering the Land of Israel which God gave to the Jews. During his trial at the beginning of the year, Yigal Amir never expressed the slightest doubt that in killing Yitzhak Rabin he was fulfilling his religious duty.

The voters of Jaffa road also have a certain wariness. They read newspapers and listen to the radio obsessively and they do not expect too much. The bomb on 3 March was not the first bomb many of them had seen and they suspect it will not be the last. Ezekiel at the stationer's is probably right when he predicts a close result that will lead to further instability in a deeply divided country.