TEL AVIV -- Whenever I want to take the pulse of Israel, I head for Tel Aviv's Hatikvah quarter, a bustle of open-air produce and meat markets and small shops.
This quarter is home to many Sephardic Jews, whose families emigrated decades ago from Muslim countries like Iraq, Syria, Iran and Yemen. Hatikvah residents lean rightward in their politics. But they veered left in 1992 to help elect the Labor Party's Yitzhak Rabin, who went on to sign the Oslo peace accord with the Palestinians. Disappointed with the peace process, they moved to the right again, voting for Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996.
And yet, in narrow alleys lined with counters full of kosher chickens, and on Etzl Street, named after the pre-state Jewish right-wing underground, the main subject of discussion might come as a shock to Prime Minister Netanyahu.
He insists that Israel will never let the Palestinians acquire statehood. But nearly every person I spoke with at random in the Hatikvah quarter is convinced that, sooner or later, Israel will be living next to a Palestinian state.
The talk in Hatikvah quarter reflects the process started by the 1993 Oslo peace accords that let the Palestinians take control of Gaza and several West Bank cities. Zvi Chini, 50, leaning on a glass case of gold wedding rings in his tiny jewelry shop, thinks it's too late to stop it.
''There won't be a choice about a Palestinian state whether we want it or not, because everything that is happening is leading in that direction.'' At Ofer Razal's dairy and grocery store, lined with barrels of pickled cabbage, turnips and cauliflower, his brother Eli, 30, says, ''A Palestinian state is not good, but there will be one. The Palestinians have a headquarters in Gaza, they have an armed police force. They have everything apart from tanks and heavy artillery.''
Hatikvah is a bellwether neighborhood because Sephardic Jews are critical swing voters in Israel who determine which major party will win. Hatikvah residents are skeptical about peace and support Mr. Netanyahu (although an undertone of criticism runs throughout the market). But they are also tough pragmatists: The leading Sephardic rabbis are open to swapping land for real peace.
Hatikvah merchants, further, have had close contact with Palestinians. Before terror attacks led the government to slash the number of Arab workers allowed into Israel, many Palestinians did the sweeping and hauling here. Now guest workers from Ghana, Romania and ex-Soviet Georgia do those jobs.
Of course, the folks in Hatikvah have more immediate concerns than the peace process. On the street the talk is about cutbacks in government jobs and health-care benefits. It is also about the character of the prime minister's wife, Sara, whose temper and alleged interference with her husband's work are the subject of bitter press attacks. But once past the Sara gossip, Hatikvah residents are only too ready to talk about their expectations of a Palestinian state. They are not happy about it; they distrust the Palestinians. Yet many think the die has already been cast.
Officials don't even use the term ''pullback'' when referring to further withdrawals from the West Bank. Instead, they employ a euphemism -- the Hebrew word pe'ima -- which means ''beat,'' as in a heartbeat or a musical beat.
But the residents of Hatikvah quarter aren't fooled. ''They do it nicely, saying 'beat' instead of 'pullback' because it is more delicate,'' suggests Mr. Gidon. But Mr. Gidon complains that most people can't fathom all the contradictory leaks about what land the government might hand over.
In their confusion, Hatikvah locals draw their own conclusions. Many are frightened and angry at the idea of a Palestinian state, some not so. Several told me they were more open to the idea before Islamist suicide bombers convinced them they couldn't trust the Palestinians. Says jeweler Chini, ''If there hadn't been terror attacks, things would have gone a lot better.''
It turns out that residents of Hatikvah quarter really do mirror the nation on this issue. In a February 1997 poll by Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center, 51 percent of the respondents accepted the idea of a Palestinian state, while 77 percent thought it would happen over the next decade. The number who expect a state to be established has doubled over the last seven years.
In Hatikvah, the merchants' main concern is security. They aren't Greater Israel ideologues, and they don't oppose giving up territory, but first they want to be sure they will be safe.
''A Palestinian state?'' muses Oded Yaacov, 25, owner of The Big Baguette restaurant. ''I don't entirely rule it out on the condition that our security is not hurt in any way, and that any military action on their side will be a signal for war.''
What Hatikvah residents want is an open discussion of where Israel is headed. They aren't afraid to speak about a Palestinian state, but they want to make sure that if it arrives, it won't threaten Israel.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Pub Date: 12/22/97