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Leah Rabin; Activist, Israeli Leader's Widow

November 13, 2000|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — Leah Rabin was just 15 when she met her future husband, Yitzhak Rabin, in a Tel Aviv ice cream store. The auburn-haired, blue-eyed 21-year-old officer in an elite Jewish commando squad "looked like King David himself," she later recalled.

He was shy and awkward; she was outspoken and sharp-tongued. Their romance, born at a time of intrigue and danger during the struggle to create an independent Jewish state, lasted more than 50 years.

Through wars, political triumphs and disasters, and historic peacemaking efforts, Leah Rabin, who died Sunday of lung cancer at 72, was at her husband's side. She even titled her first memoir: "Always His Wife."

She was just paces behind him the night a Jewish religious extremist gunned down Yitzhak Rabin at a Tel Aviv peace rally on Nov. 4, 1995.

She heard the bullets fired from Yigal Amir's gun and saw her husband's bodyguards throw themselves on the prime minister before she was whisked from the scene by security guards. By the time they finally got her to Ichilov Hospital, he was dead.

She spent the rest of her life preserving Rabin's memory and defending his vision of trading land for peace with the Palestinians.

"The government of Israel, the people of Israel and the Jewish people as a whole, as well as millions in the world, are mourning today the passing away of Leah Rabin," said Prime Minister Ehud Barak, en route to Washington for a meeting with President Clinton.

"Since [Rabin's] assassination five years ago, Leah held the torch of his legacy and brought his voice loud and clear to us Israelis and to the whole world."

Clinton, who had called Leah Rabin on the anniversary of her husband's death Nov. 4, said, "the Middle East has lost a friend of peace, but the work to which she and Yitzhak dedicated their lives must and will continue."

Shimon Peres, who was her husband's political rival for years and ultimately his partner in making peace with the Palestinians, said Leah Rabin's death was "a great loss for our people."

"Leah started from the point Yitzhak was assassinated to carry on with deep conviction, in total devotion, without fear, in a crystal clear voice, the need for peace, the call for peace, the heritage of her husband," Peres said.

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with Yitzhak Rabin and Peres, said: "God, it is so sad to lose this lady, wife of my partner in making the peace of the brave. . . . May God grace her with his mercy."

She is to be buried Wednesday in a plot next to her late husband's in Jerusalem's Mount Herzl cemetery. First her coffin will lie in state at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, where Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

The White House said it had not yet decided who would represent the United States at the funeral.

Likened in her youth to Jacqueline Kennedy, the raven-haired and elegant Rabin, whose taste tended to black pantsuits and heavy gold jewelry, was a controversial figure in Israel, particularly in the wake of her husband's killing.

As the nation reeled from the shock of its warrior-turned-peacemaker being murdered by a fellow Jew, she publicly blamed the political right for creating an atmosphere of hatred toward her husband.

At the state funeral, she turned a cold shoulder to Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition Likud Party. But she warmly welcomed Arafat into her home on a condolence call, the first trip the Palestinian leader had made to Israel proper since the birth of the Jewish state in 1948.

"How many Israelis should have touched Yitzhak's coffin to apologize for the inflamed rhetoric and hostility that created the climate that brought about his death?" she wrote in a second memoir after the prime minister's assassination. "How many now--left and right, unspoken and outspoken--feel remorse for Yitzhak's death?"

For right-wing Jews, both in Israel and the diaspora, her attacks were pure political opportunism.

"I believe that after her husband passed away, she should have been a national healer and not so controversial," said right-wing Israeli politician Michael Kleiner. "She was by far more politically left wing than her husband."

In fact, like many Israeli political wives, Rabin remained largely in the background through much of her husband's career. Born in Konigsberg, Germany, on April 8, 1928, Rabin immigrated to what was then Palestine in 1933. She was still in high school when she met her future husband, who was an officer in the underground Palmach. She joined after her graduation.

From War to Politics

The couple married in August 1948, during a cease-fire in Israel's war of independence. Yitzhak Rabin was soon off to fight on the southern front. His bride quit teaching and became a stay-at-home mother after the birth of her first child, Dahlia.

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