They'd rather not know

Israel: the view from the bus - What do Israelis think about the Palestinians? As little as possible

Ask the man on the Kiryat Menachem omnibus what he thinks about the Palestinians and he is likely to tell you that he tries not to. That is unless an Arab boards the bus as it threads its way through Jerusalem, and then most of the passengers will probably scrutinise the new arrival with an intense mix of suspicion and fear.

The mood of ordinary Israelis is closely attuned to what they call "the terror". When things are bad they talk of little else and when the attacks ease off a deep weariness sets in and they would rather just forget about "the Arabs". But they can't.

"I wouldn't say Israelis are ever optimistic," said Amir Drukman, an Israeli-American businessman who divides his time between the two countries. "It's more degrees of pessimism. When there's a lot of terror they worry about today. When things are not so bad they worry about tomorrow, about whether Hamas will take over the [occupied] territories or Iran will get the bomb. Nobody thinks about the long term in this country because they can't imagine how things will be in two or three years, let alone 20."

At the beginning of the Jewish new year this month, a survey found that most Israelis believe things have got worse in the past year in nine out of ten areas including crime, the economy and confidence in the probity of the country's rulers. Anywhere else in the world the government might feel threatened by that, but Israelis felt better about the one area that matters in elections - security. Only 21 per cent thought it had got worse.

There are fewer bombs (far more people die on the roads than at the hands of Hamas or Islamic Jihad) and the Gaza pull-out has revived a desire for negotiations with the Palestinians even though Ariel Sharon is against it.

Not that Israelis expect the negotiations to go anywhere. "Someone said in the past that Israelis are not willing to have a peace agreement but they would like to see a peace process going on," said Tamar Herman, a Tel Aviv university professor who compiles a monthly survey of the public mood. "The fact that nothing is going on contributes to this sense of insecurity. If you are back to the table there is some prospect for something to happen, so people are really upset at the fact that nothing is going on."

Security has always been, and probably always will be, central to the Israeli psyche. The Holocaust, treated as an embarrassment by the pioneers of the Israeli state, is now so central that a majority of high-school children identify themselves as "survivors". Wars with Israel's Arab neighbours, two intifadas and a press that portrays anti-Semitism as dragging Europe back to the 1930s (while ignoring the "Death to Arabs" slogans daubed on walls and chanted at football matches) all contribute to genuinely held fears.

But they are open to manipulation.

"It's the button that clicks on people's recognition in Israel," said Herman. "If there's any problem for the people at the top, once they push the security button the ability to mobilise public opinion is very high. We know for example that the security agencies, when they have to discuss the budget, start leaking information about threats coming from the outside in order to create pressure from public opinion for a bigger budget."

In similar vein, ordinary Israelis were encouraged by their press and government to believe that the Gaza pull-out this year would bring the country to the brink of civil war. As it turned out, the worst incident of Jewish violence against Jews was the stoning of a senior army officer praying at the Wailing Wall.

Men such as Yisrael Medad, a settler who lives in Shiloh in the West Bank but works in Jerusalem, are left wondering what Ariel Sharon will do next. "Mr Sharon completely changed his political and diplomatic attitude. Everything is up in the air," he said. "If the terror continues in any way, it will only get worse. It would be the Arabs' sorrow but it's not our fault."

The latest foray into constructing security, after the failure of occupation and negotiation in the eyes of most Israelis, is the 400-plus miles of fence and wall being built in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Few Israelis have seen it, even where it is a 25-foot high concrete slab running through the city they claim as their eternal and indivisible capital. The wall is almost invisible from Jewish West Jerusalem and most Israelis choose not to think about the harm it causes the city's Arab citizens.

Tellingly, while it is billed to the outside world as the security fence, at home it is mostly described as the separation fence.

"Israelis have no desire to coexist in the sense of having shared lives," said Herman. "The separation fence or wall is just the physical manifestation of the wall that has been there even before the barrier was built. It reflects a deep sense of estrangement toward the other side. The Israeli view of the other side is like a polite divorce. They don't want to see the divorcee. All the arguments of the human rights groups about the damage that is being done to the Palestinians by the barrier, it doesn't resonate with most Israelis. They don't want to know."

Chris McGreal is the Guardian's Jerusalem correspondent

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy and demons