The widow who grieves out loud

PROFILE: Leah Rabin: Yitzhak Rabin's death has led his wife to quit the political back seat. By Patrick Cockburn
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The Independent Online
It was the coldest handshake she could manage, Leah Rabin later recalled. In the television pictures you can just detect the hesitation before her hand goes forward to shake that of Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud party, at the funeral of her husband, Yitzhak Rabin. "It's too late," she said to him, meaning it was too late for regrets or apologies.

The next day she spelt out the reason for her anger. "Yes, surely I blame them," she said. "If you ever heard their speeches at the Knesset (Parliament) you would understand what I mean. They were very, very violent in their expressions. They said we are selling the country down the drain. There will be no Israel after this peace agreement."

In repeated television interviews she pointed the finger at Mr Netanyahu. She recalled the meeting he addressed in Jerusalem last month when Mr Rabin was portrayed in Nazi uniform. Mr Netanyahu, famed for his suavity but looking a little rattled, was quick to stress the ceaseless battle he had waged against the excesses of the far right in his party. He expressed understanding for the grieving widow.

Mrs Rabin had never played a role separate from her husband in Israeli politics. In so far as Israelis thought about her at all, she was seen as something of a snob. Last year she lost a brooch during the signing ceremony for the treaty between Israel and Jordan and got a squad of soldiers to search for it. This reinforced her image as somebody lacking the common touch, which has been difficult to eradicate since she was discovered in 1977 to have kept an illegal bank account in Washington. The resulting scandal forced her husband to resign as prime minister.

But within hours of the assassination she had become the wife of a martyr. Crowds filed past Mr Rabin's coffin outside the Knesset. Yesterday they were still lighting candles in the rain beside his grave on Mount Herzl.

For a moment, Leah Rabin's attack on Mr Netanyahu seemed like the opening shots of an onslaught on Likud for its alliance with the religious right, which in turn produced the assassin. But Shimon Peres, the acting prime minister, decided against a snap election which would have been fought, in part, over responsibility for the death of Mr Rabin. By waiting until next year, Mr Peres eased the pressure on the right wing. Mrs Rabin, however, remains a menacing figure for Likud, like Queen Margaret in Richard III, a visible reminder of past crimes.

She has also started to play a second role as a symbol of the policy of peace with the Palestinians. Late on Thursday evening Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the PLO, arrived at her Tel Aviv house - his first ever visit to Israel - to express his condolences. Mrs Rabin said: "My husband regarded you as his partner in peace," adding that the Israeli people "were insisting on carrying on the peace process".

It is all more high-profile than Leah Rabin's usual back seat in the years of her marriage to Yitzhak Rabin. They met when, as a 16-year-old, she joined Palmach, the main armed force of the Jewish underground army, and married him four years later. Born Leah Schlossberg in Konigsberg, Germany, in 1928, she emigrated to Palestine with her parents and sister in 1933. In his memoirs, her husband recalls that she joined the Palmach battalion of which he was deputy commander in 1945 and later finished her studies as a teacher. During the war of independence in 1948 she was in the department of information in the Palmach headquarters.

At first the Rabins lived in one room in her parents' house in Tel Aviv before moving into their own house in the suburb of Zahada, which was much favoured by army officers. They liked to play Scrabble with their neighbours, which then included the army chief-of-staff, Mordechai Maklef. Two children were born: Dahlia, now 45 and a lawyer, and Yuval, 40, a computer software promoter. There are three grandchildren.

Leah, according to her official biography issued by the government, which appears short on things to say about her, was "of great moral support to her husband in his military career of 27 years". She felt, she wrote in a short autobiography called self-descriptively All the Time his Wife, that "it was important for Yitzhak to know that I was at home with the children, and that enabled him to throw himself body and soul into whatever he was doing."

Her husband became successively chief-of-staff in the Six Day war, ambassador to Washington for five years and, from 1974, prime minister. Leah Rabin, who has always been strikingly better looking in real life than on television, obviously enjoyed her public role. In 1977, however, she became the object of intense interest in Israel when it was revealed that she and her husband had $2,000 in an account in a bank on Dupont Circle in Washington - something that was strictly illegal under Israeli foreign currency relations at the time.

Yitzhak Rabin said in his memoirs that it was effectively her bank account but he took responsibility. She says: "I never once heard him say, 'What did you do? Why have you got me in a mess?' " He resigned as prime minister and Leah stood trial. When the judge fined her the equivalent of $27,000 or a year in prison, she wrote: "I was in shock. He was far more severe than any of the experts had foreseen." Despite this the Rabins bounced back quickly during the Eighties, though she says he was so bored on the back benches of the Knesset that he used to ring her up "three or four times a day".

Leah Rabin's fury at Mr Netanyahu will probably be the high point of the rage of the left against the right, but the real conflict in Israel is increasingly between the secular and the religious. For all his reputation as a glossy opportunist, Mr Netanyahu was guilty of no more than hoping to use the religious right just as they tried to use him. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin has sharpened the differences between those who want Israel to be a theocratic state and those who do not. In this battle Mrs Rabin will be a potent and probably vocal symbol.