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Los Angeles Times Interview : Leah Rabin : Finding the Right Path After the Assassination

January 21, 1996|Marjorie Miller | Marjorie Miller is Jerusalem bureau chief for The Times

TEL AVIV — Two-and-a-half months have passed since Yitzhak Rabin was gunned down at a Tel Aviv peace rally by a 25-year-old Jewish extremist opposed to the Israeli prime minister's land-for-peace agreement with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

As usual in their 47-year marriage, Rabin's wife, Leah, was at her husband's side during the rally, and scurrying to keep up as the prime minister left the stage with security guards. A friendly voice off to the side shouted at her to take good care of Rabin. "I am doing my best," she answered. But Yigal Amir, the confessed assassin, reached her husband before she did.

At the prime minister's state funeral, Leah Rabin received the condolences of Israel's many friends and former enemies with grace, drawing comparisons to the young Jacqueline Kennedy. But the widow also sharply criticized the political opposition for having created a "climate of hatred" with violent language and rowdy demonstrations that she felt contributed to his murder. And, while thanking the millions of Israelis who turned out to pay their last respects to Rabin, she chastised them for having kept silent in the face of prolonged right-wing attacks on Rabin's peace policy.

Before the assassination, Leah Rabin was the consummate political wife and hostess, dedicated to her husband's career and a few charities. She raised their two children, spent time with grandchildren and seemed content to live in the long shadow of Yitzhak Rabin.

Since his death, Leah Rabin has devoted herself to her husband's memory. She attended memorial services in Tel Aviv, New York and Paris and, with Jordan's King Hussein, dedicated a trauma center in Rabin's name at Ichilov Hospital, where he died.

To answer the mounds of mail and requests for appearances that have come her way since the assassination, Rabin took a government-financed office in Tel Aviv. Calling her a crusader for her husband's peace process--an issue of public controversy--the Likud opposed granting her the office at public expense, but eventually gave up the fight.

On her office walls, as in the home she shared with Rabin, hang pictures and collages of the slain prime minister that were gifts to the widow. She lives alone in the apartment now, but does not stay by herself; one of her children or grandchildren keeps her company each night, and a housekeeper is there most days.

A security guard accompanied Rabin to the office one morning last week on the eve of a trip to Los Angeles, where she will receive the first Rabin Award at the Sheba Medical Center Humanitarian Awards dinner on Saturday. Wearing an elegant black pantsuit, a yellow cashmere sweater and a sad smile, she sat and talked about her life since Rabin's death.

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Question: How does it feel to have such a high profile after so many years behind the scenes?

Answer: He deserves that, if he is lost, all of us, his family, will some way or other carry the burden of this thing in a dignified way. I can only say I think this is the way he would like it to be. Mr. [French President Jacques] Chirac put it in a very beautiful way, saying that his handling of the peace process was beyond ordinary political doing. There was a halo, there was a torch he was carrying. "The way I see you," he [Chirac] said to me, "you should carry the torch." I really am carrying no torch--that to me sounds very pretentious. But I am trying to live up, first of all, to his reputation, to his standards. Trying. I will never be able to. I am here now to, first of all, receive all the people's pain, sorrow, all those letters, all those words. Who would do it if I wasn't here? Who would they bring it to? . . . What I am is, I am just doing my best. And out of instincts and feelings rather than any kind of an agenda.

Q: After the assassination, you said many times that you felt the country had been united by this tragedy. Is this still the case?

A: What I feel today, when some of the dust has come down, it's not that the country was united but definitely something good, positive happened out of this horrible shock and trauma that followed my husband's death. That is, in terms of "we shall be silent no more." And so many people, thousands of people, feel guilty that they were silent. They think they could have prevented it if they weren't so silent. If there would have been an answer to all this yelling, to all this ugly language, to all these ugly posters, to all the ugly demonstrations. There was no answer. They trusted that he would do it, he can do it without us. Then they realized that, without them, he couldn't do it. He needed them . . . .

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