Eleven weeks ago, Leah Rabin's husband was assassinated. Today, she arrives in London to promote the cause of peace. The personification of her people's grief, she has displayed formidable public strength. Here, she exposes her heart hearrstStaSta StandfirstStandfirstStandfirstStandfirstSta ndfirstStandfirstStandfirstStaSta Standfirst Standfirst
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"WHEN HE was shot," says Leah Rabin, "I didn't believe it was for real, even though he was on the ground with his bodyguards on top of him. Someone called out, 'Ze staam... It's not real,' and I believed it, I thought everything had gone so well at the Peace Rally till that moment. I even turned to the bodyguards and said, 'Congratulations', because no one had been hurt. Then, when it happened, they whisked me off to the HQ of the Shabak, the Israeli Security Services, and left me alone in an empty room."

Through the walls she could hear the perpetual ringing of phones and panicked voices; when a security guard came in, she asked what was going on and was told, "We don't know." It was at that point, while her husband was lying on an operating table at death's door, that she picked up the phone to her daughter and said, "Dalia, your father's been shot, but don't worry, because it's not for real."

Leah Rabin pauses and leans back on a sofa in the Tel Aviv apartment she shared with her husband for so many years. As she talks, she constantly fingers her necklace. Inside the gold hexagon is a tiny, dark picture of her husband, visible one minute, invisible the next, depending on the light. She is immaculately groomed, shiny black hair clipped back, a touch of lipstick, a hint of eye make-up. Here is no fading, fragile beauty; her looks are strong, striking and still very much with her at 69. The only outward manifestation of emotional exhaustion is the blackness around her dark blue eyes. "It is terrible," she says, her eyes intense, and staring. "I want to be away, but I can't bear that. And I want to be here where Yitzhak was, but I can't bear that either. Everything is terrible. You know, we played tennis together every Saturday morning. Last week, I played again for the first time since Yitzhak died, but when I tried to hit the ball I just let out a yell."

There is no trace of self pity in her voice; she is merely explaining the way things are. ("I always knew she was strong," says her son, Yuval, "But she has shocked even me. After the first 30-day period of mourning was over, we flew to New York to attend a memorial service for my father. We found ourselves on 42nd Street in the biting wind and the freezing cold; they were renaming it Rabin Way. My mother was exhausted and unhappy, but she was asked to speak. It was unexpected. No notes. No preparation. But she did it, and it was brilliant.") Sometimes, as she sits and answers questions, the framed certificate of her husband's Nobel Peace Prize propped up against some books on her left, Leah Rabin's voice is so strong and deep, her demeanour so lacking in vulnerability, that it is as if she were trying to detach herself from her pain. Then she glances at her watch and realises it's six o'clock on Friday afternoon. "He used to come home at this time every Friday, you know. It's not that I'm unrealistic. I mean, I'm not expecting him to walk through the door now. But it's just hard. I haven't touched any of his things. I can't. I've left everything intact." Then she lifts her hands to her eyes and says, "Gosh, I'm almost crying."

She changes the subject and begins to talk about her two children and three grandchildren and the support they have given her; but invariably, she keeps coming back to her husband. "He had a real love affair with his children and grandchildren," she says. "All of them, but yes, maybe with Noa in particular."

Noa is the 18-year-old girl whose speech and tear-stained cheeks at her grandfather's funeral moved millions. She wanted, she said, to talk not about peace in the middle East, but about him, his warmth and his half- smile. "She is an unbelievable girl," Leah says. "She sat at her grandfather's desk, here in this apartment, at 5.30 on the morning of the funeral and wrote her speech. I read it, of course, and I knew it was good, but I never imagined the effect it would have. Noa said: 'Grandma, how will I say this without crying?' In the end, she did cry and it was very genuine." The night before the funeral, Leah, her daughter Dalia and her granddaughter all slept in the same bed in an attempt to comfort one another. Since then Dalia and Noa have taken it in turns to stay with Leah; not a night has passed when she has been left on her own. Nor has a day passed when she has not sat down and written a long letter to her late husband. "I have to tell him everything that has happened. I can imagine what he would say if he knew about the overwhelming reaction from the whole world. He would say 'Leah, you're exaggerating. All this just for me?' He was so modest."

THEIR'S WAS one of the lasting love stories in politics. They came from entirely different backgrounds - he born in Palestine to working-class parents, she born into a family of aristocratic intellectuals in Germany - but they were the Uptown Girl and Downtown Boy that worked. In his memoirs, Yitzhak Rabin described their first meeting in 1943 as "a look, a glance, a stirring within". His widow's memory of that encounter is similar: "We met on a street corner. He looked and I looked. I was 16 at the time and in the Palmach [the Zionist Youth movement] and I had lots of boyfriends, but Yitzhak - boy, was he gorgeous. He had these green eyes and red hair. We kept seeing each other, and after a while I asked a friend who he was. 'Ah Yitzhak,' he said, 'now he's something special.' "

Yitzhak and Leah Rabin's eighth floor apartment is the symbol of the successful merging of their respective characters. Though it is small, purpose-built and unspectacular, the flat is filled with tastefully chosen pieces: an intricately carved wooden sideboard, a table set with fine green china, a huge modern painting of noughts and crosses. And nothing is out of place. As a friend remembers, "Even as a young girl in the Palmach, Leah was the one with flowers in her tent."

I glance around. "There's so much light in here," I say.

"So much love," she replies.

It would be easy to suggest that Leah Rabin is idealising her marriage in the wake of tragedy. But little details suggest that she is not exaggerating the strength of the relationship. There's the letter written by Yitzhak to Leah on the eve of their 24th wedding anniversary, a letter that says, "How lucky we are that we met." There is the official photograph of the two of them taken last year in which Prime Minister Rabin's arm is around his wife's waist. Vardi Kahana, famous now in Israel precisely because of taking that portrait, remembers the photo session: "I watched them through the lens for a long time. He straightened her clothes. He said, 'Leah, don't smile too much, it doesn't look good.' He wanted her to look her best. He really adored her."

Both their children, Dalia Pilosof and Yuval Rabin, agree that their parents were a real team: "My mother could count to ten after every TV interview, after every radio interview, and my father would call and say 'Well how was I?' " remembers Yuval.

But they had far more to cement their relationship than the average couple. "We lived the life of the State of Israel together," says Leah. They did; they married in 1948 and, had Yitzhak Rabin not been murdered, they would have celebrated Israel's 50th anniversary with their own. When Leah Rabin speaks of her feelings for her husband, of the emptiness, the devastation, the nothingness, she could be any widow grieving the untimely loss of her husband: "We had," she says, "breakfast together every day at 7am. It was a holy act." But she is different, and there are reminders of that difference everywhere - the man, for instance, at the front door who checks the inside of every flower for explosives before he rings the bell to deliver the bouquet. The fact that he turns out your every pocket before you are allowed over the threshold. The constant interruptions... a call, for example, from Ronit, a stranger who has sent Leah Rabin a long letter of condolence every single day since the murder, and the call she suddenly remembers she must make to her secretary. "Rochelle," she says, "Yassir is spelt with an 'i' and not an 'e' in English. Oh, and the other letter is to Vice-President Gore."

Leah Rabin has been left little time to grieve in private; both Israelis and Jews and non-Jews the world over have looked to her to accept the outpouring of their own sorrow. She rose to the challenge. She appeared on CNN the morning after the funeral; she addressed a memorial rally of 250,000 at the place of her husband's assassination only a week after the tragedy; she attended memorial ceremonies in New York and Paris; she agreed to fly to Rome to accept the Pope's condolences - "When I was in Rome, hundreds of people were coming up to me in the street, it was unreal... as if my husband had been a Roman." The world was, and still is, tugging at Leah Rabin's sleeve.

It was a process that started the night of her husband's murder, with the thousands of young people who packed the streets outside her home, carrying memorial candles in little round tins and singing the Song of Peace, which Rabin had sung at the rally minutes before his death. At first, she had watched them from her window. Then, overwhelmed by their numbers and the words of the song - "I am going to cry for you, be strong up there my Brother" - she came down and addressed the crowds: "Tell me," she demanded, "where were you before? Why weren't you here when they [right- wing extremists] came to call him a traitor? Still, it is good that you came." The Israeli public responded to Leah Rabin's words. Apologetic graffiti - "Rabin, forgive us for not showing up" - were scrawled on the walls of the square where he was assassinated, and every week, pro-peace demonstrators now stand opposite the house of the new prime minister, Shimon Peres, to welcome him home for the Sabbath. "You'll never walk alone," they chant, "you'll never walk alone." From a stand nearby, a young soldier is handing out free stickers: "Peres, we're with you all the way to peace," they read. "This," the soldier says, "is all because of Leah Rabin."

I mention that I have seen the crowds outside Peres's home, and she gives a very weak smile. Peres: it is no secret in Israel that, although Rabin and Peres forged a modus vivendi in the cause of peace, relations between the two men - and their families - resembled those between the Montagues and Capulets. Does Leah Rabin think Peres can go it alone ? She takes a deep breath.The answer she gives is genuinely her view. But you can see it hurts her to say it, and you can understand why. "Yes," she says, "I absolutely do think Peres can go it alone. And I'll tell you why: the silent majority will be silent no more."

By the silent majority she means those who are prepared to give land back to the Palestinians and to the Syrians and who were not there to defend her husband against the right-wingers' angry demonstrations outside his house every Friday for the last few weeks of his life. She remembers it vividly: "They yelled 'Murderer, murderer, traitor, traitor.' They followed me into the car park and they screamed, 'You will hang like Mussolini and his wife.' "

How had she felt about the demonstrators at the time? "We laughed at them. One Friday, my husband came home and I pointed at him and joked, 'boged... boged... traitor... traitor' "

Leah Rabin no longer laughs when she speaks of the extremists. Instead, she talks and talks about the phenomenon behind her husband's murder; she uses words like cancerous, poisonous and lethal. But what is striking is that, though she is wounded and angry, there is no sense of her seeking revenge. Eitan Haber, Rabin's right hand man, had said, for instance, that he would pursue the murderer's family till the end. But when I ask Leah what she thinks about that, she waves her hand dismissively, and says, "I don't want to talk about it, it was a mistake." Just eight weeks after her husband's murder (as it was when we spoke), it would be hard to show greater dignity than that.

LEAH RABIN has long been a controversial figure. She has never been shy of speaking her mind; she doesn't suffer fools gladly; she has never inspired indifference. Right now, it is the right wingers who object to her burgeoning public persona; four years ago, it was the feminists she enraged with a book about her relationship with her husband, Esrat Kenegodo [Wife by His Side], a title taken from Genesis and referring to the story of Eve as Adam's helper. (She describes her role as always having been secondary to her husband's. "I was there for him, with him, behind him," she says. "He never said, 'Leah don't work,' but, deep down, I knew he was happy I didn't. He remembered being left alone with his little sister too much as a child. After the Six Day War, a radio reporter said to him, 'Mr. Rabin, your parents were always away from you and now you are often away from your children.' He said, 'Yes, but they have their mother.' ")

But the major controversy that surrounds Leah Rabin dates back to the Seventies. From 1968 to 1973, Yitzhak Rabin had served as Israeli ambassador in Washington; in 1974, he became Prime Minister. In those days, it was illegal for Israelis resident in their country to hold bank accounts abroad, even if the money in them had been earned by honest means. When it was discovered that Leah Rabin had failed to close her Washington bank account, she was summoned to court and fined. An emergency cabinet meeting was called, and Yitzhak Rabin felt bound to resign as prime minister. He and Leah, he said, were "in it together". The solidarity he showed his wife served only to enhance his standing, and the incident was never an issue when he was re-elected as prime minister in 1992. But no such kindness was shown Leah Rabin; the press has never let her forget it.

They have attacked her too for her love of finery, for her couture clothes and her heavy gold jewellery. And last year, when several soldiers helped her search for a brooch she had dropped in the sand during the signing of the Peace Treaty with Jordan, the in-joke in media circles became, "How many platoons does it take to find a prime minister's wife's brooch?" But most of all, they have criticised her outspokenness. In Israel, prime ministers' wives are expected to be seen and not heard; but that was not and never will be her style. She availed herself of the very fact that she was a "private", rather than a public, person to air her views, almost always in defence of her husband. So when last year she called Dan Shilon, a leading TV journalist, to express her anger that he should have asked a right-wing MP if he thought Rabin too distanced from the people, her intervention caused a furore - particularly when Shilon leaked her private comments to the press. Her husband's politics have often been the subject of her battles with the press, and this continues to be the case even after his death. Joel Marcus, an Israeli journalist, has, for instance, recently written an unsparing article in Ha'aretz, suggesting that Peres was a far greater politician than Rabin. "Did you see that article?" asks Leah. "You should have seen what I wrote back to him. I said, 'You are insulting the dead Rabin and flirting with the live Peres.' "

That she has a rebarbative side is evident during our interview. I ask what she would have done in another life, and she responds sharply, "That's an irrelevant question. Hypothetical. Let's stick to what is." And later she looks at her watch and snaps, "You have precisely 10 minutes." But Israelis are often referred to as Sabras, the Sabra being an indigenous fruit that is prickly on the outside and soft on the inside. Leah Rabin's softness does shine through, as when she shows me a drawing done for her by a little autistic boy. "You see what he wrote," she says. "He wrote, 'Mrs. Rabin, I'm very, very sad.' "

That Leah Rabin herself might be sad is given little thought in the harsh climate of Israeli politics. The controversy currently surrounding her centres on whether or not it is right that she has a government-funded office, a driver and secretarial help to cope with the sackloads of mail (in excess of 100,000 letters) that she has received from all over the world since 4 November. Even after working hours on a Friday, the phone rings incessantly. Calls are from Italy, from Paris, from the United States. Some are private calls. Most are not. They are requests to attend ceremonies in Yitzhak Rabin's honour, to open departments in his honour, to speak in his honour. Between being interviewed and answering the phones, Leah Rabin has not a moment's peace. Her coffee remains undrunk, her cake uneaten. It is her daughter, a lawyer, who has asked for help: "I went to Peres," says Dalia Pilosof, "and I said, 'Look, Shimon, here are the privileges afforded to an ex-prime minister. They include an office, a secretary and a driver. My mother should have the same privileges."

But though Peres agreed, and Leah Rabin has moved into offices in Tel Aviv, the decision has yet to be approved by the Government Finance Committee. And though she has many supporters, she has been slated for her request by several corners of the Press. Rightwingers say they have no desire to fund her office. In Ha'aretz, Joel Marcus has argued that to enjoy these facilities is not the privilege of any other ex-prime minister's wife and that it would set a precedent. But most Israelis are in favour of help being given to Leah Rabin. There is, they point out, one difference between Leah Rabin and other ex-prime minister's wives: none of their husbands have been murdered in the line of duty. And even though she has no official role, that terrible singularity has helped her make political history.

During the seven-day mourning period following a death, it is customary in the Jewish religion for the next of kin to "sit shiva", to sit at home on a low stool and accept the condolences of those who come to pay their respects. Yassir Arafat was among them. "After three days, I got a call from Arafat. He said he was coming. We politely asked the other guests to leave. We said there was someone coming who didn't want attention. He came and sat here, on that sofa over there, for an hour. He was charming. Actually, he phoned the other day and said, 'How are you, my sister?' He said he would come again soon, and I said that he must bring Suha [his wife] this time." It was one thing for Leah Rabin to watch her husband shake hands with Arafat on the White House lawn. It is quite another for her to play host to him and sip tea with him in her front room.

TODAY, Leah Rabin arrives in London to launch an appeal to raise funds for Israel and to promote the peace process. "Chirac said I should carry the torch of peace for my husband," she says. "I'm quite happy to do that." But will such a role satisfy her? She is now in the limelight; does she have a future in Israeli politics? Many Israelis are confident she has - as her son, Yuval, says, "The word President has even been thrown around." But neither of her children actually wants to see her in politics. "What does she need it for?" asks her daughter Dalia, "Why should she be a target?"

But what about Leah Rabin herself? Does she want it? "I will not fight for it this much," she says, pointing to the nail on her little finger. What if it comes her way? "Even then I don't know," she says, though her tone suggests she's open to the idea.

Three days after my second meeting with Leah Rabin, she gave an interview on Israeli TV. Her greatest fear, she had told me, was of breaking down in public, of losing control. At first, she seemed supremely in control. She was appropriately emphatic. Yes, she needed an office. She was suitably evasive. No, she didn't know what kind of political future she had, if any. It was far too early to talk about it.

But without warning, the interviewer changed tack and asked her what she missed most about her husband. "Everything," she said, "simply everything. He is in every corner of the apartment. He is everywhere."

And suddenly there was a chink in the armour. Her public face began to crack, her private one to peep through. And the expression on her face was the one she wore when she had asked me, "Tell me, if I write a chapter of my book as a letter to Yitzhak, do you think I will be exposing my heart too much?" !