The symbolism was impossible to miss. Fireworks and sparklers lit up the sky above the very place where Yigal Amir, a right-wing extremist,
shot three lethal bullets into Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's back three
and a half years ago.
Electoral ballots, printed with the name of Israel's new prime minister Ehud Barak, were thrown in the air like confetti, landing near candles and
And in front of the memorial portraits of a man considered by many a martyr
for peace, people of all ages danced to the deafening din of African drums,
Israeli pop and victory chants.
"We are returning the hope," read giant banners in
a corner of Rabin Square -- Tel Aviv's central square, dedicated to the
statesman who was assassinated during a peace rally on November 4, 1995.
"Bibi go home, we want peace," shouted people in a honking, flag-waving car cruising by.
On the surface, the elections were not about peace. Debates focused more on Netanyahu's quirky personality, the economy and the strained
relations between Israel's secular and religious Jews, rather than on the future of Jerusalem.
However, the knowledge that the next prime minister would have to take up the nation's
unfinished business with the Palestinians was never too far in the back of voters' minds. Israelis had to chose between Netanyahu, a tough and somewhat
obstinate negotiator, and Barak, a presumably more flexible one. Implementation of last fall's Wye River accords, granting Palestinians an
additional 13 percent of the West Bank in exchange for security guarantees, was unilaterally suspended by Netanyahu during the election campaign. But Monday's vote showed that a majority of Israelis thought the stalemate had lasted long enough.
In cars, bicycles and on foot, tens of thousands of elated Barak supporters poured spontaneously into Rabin Square for an all-night celebration that
had the appearances of a long-overdue reunion.
"As soon as I heard the results, I felt I had to come here to make a
connection with the day when it all stopped,' said Samuel Hassin, a 38-year-old architect. "I'm coming back after being lost for three years. I'm
happy, but I'm also upset. A lot of damage was done in this time. These three years were years of darkness."
Yet people did not rejoice at once. At 10 p.m., when the first exit polls came out, Rabin Square was eerily empty. Mindful of the disappointment of
1996, when Shimon Peres' narrow victory over Netanyahu melted into defeat
when final results were known at dawn, people tried to hold back their joy.
But they could not. As they poured into the square, again and again people expressed a mixture of immense relief, sadness and hope as they grasped the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu's term as prime
minister was finally over.
"It's finished. These were three awful years for all of us, morally, economically, politically," said Shoshana Fried, 54. "Now I hope that Barak
has the power to continue from where Rabin left off," said Fried, a bookkeeper who was present when Rabin was killed and has come to all the
memorial rallies held in his honor since then.
"It's the first time that there's real happiness here since Rabin died. People are smiling to each other and only now realizing how demoralized
they were for three and a half years," said Joel Kantor, 50, a photographer.
Most recognized that the road to peace would be difficult, with tough questions like borders, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of
Jerusalem waiting for Barak at the negotiating table. "I don't think it
will be easy but I'm not afraid," said Yalon Schoel, a 64-year-old agronomist. "The former situation was more dangerous because the other side
[the Palestinians] were going to lose patience."
Right-wingers kept a low profile on election night, and on Rabin Square, there was
not a yarmulke in sight. Many on the left blame Netanyahu's supporters for
having created the climate of hatred and incitement that culminated in
Rabin's slaying. "Rabin's death put a stigma on all of us," said Yair
Greenberg, 18, standing with a few friends in front of the mostly deserted
Likud Party headquarters when the first electoral results came out . Nearby a fellow Netanyahu supporter promised journalists: "God will bring Barak down."