Israel on Sunday prepared to bury its assassinated prime minister, its political destiny a question mark and its self-image as the Jewish homeland profoundly shaken.
Yitzhak Rabin, gunned down Saturday night in Tel Aviv, made his final journey by army staff car to Jerusalem, his casket looking somehow too small to contain the enormity of his passing.
Hundreds of thousands of mourners, an astonishing spectacle in a country of 5.5 million, converged to pay their respects as he lay in state on the grounds of the national Parliament.
On the square where Rabin was killed, thousands of people gathered Sunday night to light candles. One group arranged their candles to spell, “Why?”
Those who went to their jobs passed colleagues without greeting or even really seeing each other. The murmur of conversation weaving through supermarkets and downtown streets was the same: “Terrible. … How could this happen? … A Jew killing a Jew. … Heaven help us.”
“There are no feelings but sadness,” said Aliza Fredrich, 51, holding a newspaper proclaiming the news. “I read it, but I don’t believe it happened.”
“Rabin was looking out for the future. He was looking out for the young, and they killed him,” said Amir Shavir, 18. “They killed my hope.”
President Clinton and a pantheon of world leaders, including Jordan’s King Hussein, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl, prepared to fly in for Rabin’s funeral, to be held this morning amid the tightest security blanket ever draped across this long-troubled city.
Only in death could Rabin lure Mubarak to the Jewish state, and Hussein, who has visited elsewhere in Israel, will set foot in Jerusalem for the first time since half of it passed from Jordanian rule in 1967.
The U.S. delegation, which numbered about a hundred people, included a half-dozen Cabinet members, former presidents Jimmy Carter and George Bush and some 40 members of Congress.
Acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres confessed to his Labor Party parliamentary faction Sunday that “worry is eating my heart.” But he vowed again to continue the peace overtures to Syria and the Palestinians that he and Rabin, lifelong rivals turned partners as they reached their twilight years, had conceived and brought about together.
Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu, who controls the largest number of opposition votes, made that hope more probable with the declaration that he would not oppose Labor’s bid to form a new government.
Under Israeli law, the government is deemed to have fallen with Rabin’s death, but Peres will now have a relatively clean shot at recreating his party’s narrow parliamentary majority.
“In a democracy, governments are replaced through elections and not through murder,” Netanyahu said.
As Rabin lay in state outside the Knesset Sunday, the shock of his slaying brought as many as one in five Israeli adults on a trek here to pay their last respects.
Tourism Minister Uzi Baram, who is coordinating the funeral, said 4,000 guests - including up to 2,500 from abroad - had been invited. Yasser Arafat’s spokesman announced in Gaza that the Palestine Liberation Organization chairman did not intend to go to the funeral because his presence would have raised protocol and security problems.