Leah’s Legacy

After Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated five years ago this month, his wife Leah cast herself as the unforgiving scourge of the Israeli right, which she blamed for fostering the atmosphere in which a Jewish radical, Yigal Amir, pulled the trigger.

She constantly chastised the West Bank settlers and other opponents of the Oslo peace agreement for hounding her husband as a “traitor” and “murderer.” As Eitan Haber, Rabin’s devoted aide, wrote after her death last Sunday, “Leah Rabin was not looking for approval. She wanted to utter her truth, and she did.”When young peace campaigners went to her Tel Aviv flat to comfort her after the murder, she asked them accusingly why they hadn’t come during the long months when Rabin’s abusers picketed them there every weekend. She refused to shake hands with the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, who had spoken at a Jerusalem rally in which demonstrators brandished photo-montages of Rabin in Nazi uniform.

Hours after Rabin’s state funeral, Leah told an Israeli television interviewer, “There definitely was incitement, which was strongly absorbed and which found itself a murderer, who did this because he had the support of a broad public.” Earlier, when Rabin was lying in state, she frostily told an opposition politician, who came to pay his respects, “It’s too late.”

Along with Shimon Peres, who shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Yasser Arafat, she saw herself as the custodian of the Oslo process. In one of her last interviews, when she was dying of cancer, she reproached Ehud Barak for abandoning the gradualist strategy of the 1993 accords and trying to solve all the problems in the century-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict before completing the necessary foundation of mutual trust. Only last week, she lobbied the prime minister to let Peres meet Arafat and seek a cease-fire.

Leah Rabin was born in the Prussian city of Koenigsberg in 1928 to a family markedly different from her future husband’s. Her father, Fima Schlossberg, was a German Jewish businessman. Her Danish-born mother, Gusta, was a celebrated beauty. They settled in what was then British-ruled Palestine immediately after Hitler came to power in 1933. Unlike Yitzhak’s family, blue-collared pioneers of Labor Zionism, they were pillars of the German-speaking, concert-going Tel Aviv middle class. Her father opened a hotel there and later traded in farm machinery.

In her teens, Leah was a striking, assertive activist in the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair movement. In a rare romantic passage in his memoirs, the dour Yitzhak wrote of their first, chance encounter in a Tel Aviv street: “A glance, a word, a stirring within, and then a further meeting …”

The writer Shabtai Teveth, who knew them both, remembered their courtship differently from Rabin’s reminiscence. “He just followed her step by step,” he once told me, “until he gathered enough courage to make himself known to her. It was very typical of Yitzhak. On the one hand, he was very tenacious, persistent. On the other hand, he was very shy. I think Leah was the first girl he ever dated.”

Later, when Rabin was a commander in the Palmach, the professional core of the nascent Jewish army, Leah served in his battalion. “It was,” he wrote, “one of the rare occasions in our life together when she was under my command.” At their society wedding during a truce in the 1948 War of Independence, Rabin’s patience was tried by the rabbi, who arrived half an hour late. Guests heard a familiar bass voice promising his bride: “This is the last time I’m getting married.”

Leah’s cousin, Uri Kelner, said after her death: “She was a character from the day she was born.” With her high-combed black hair and emphatic makeup, she was stylish, well-groomed, well-read. She adored and she hated, in equal measure.

Yet like others in her generation of Israeli service and political wives, she was content to be her husband’s consort. Although she studied to be a teacher, she had no separate career, and friends say she never missed one. She was Rabin’s hostess, his attentive sounding board, his doubles partner on the tennis court, his loyal widow. She introduced him to an alien world of symphonies and art galleries.

She came to the attention of a wider public during Rabin’s first term as prime minister in the mid-seventies. An Israeli reporter discovered that the couple had retained a dollar account in Washington, where Rabin had served as Israel’s ambassador. At that time, the law barred Israelis from holding foreign currency.

Rabin stood down as leader of the Labor Party on the eve of the 1977 elections, which brought Menachem Begin’s Likud to power for the first time. Leah took the rap and paid a fine of 250,000 Israeli pounds (the equivalent of $27,000).

If anything, the scandal brought them closer. Together, they patiently reassembled his career, first as a Knesset member, then as defense minister and finally as his party’s successful candidate for prime minister.Yitzhak Rabin’s last recorded words as he left the podium at the fateful Tel Aviv peace rally on November 4, 1995, were “Where’s Leah?” Five years later, her doctor predicted (correctly) that she would hold on until after Rabin’s memorial day. She died, taking phone calls almost to the end, in the hospital that bears his name.