"I want to deposit $50 in the account of Leah Rabin," Dan Margalit announced early one Monday morning last month, which is how this whole thing began.
How it ended everyone knows by now. Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel, said he would withdraw from politics. Leah Rabin, his wife, is about to be the subject of a criminal investigation! And the political situation in Israel is, as the papers are forever saying, turbulent.
And Dan Margalit, a Washington-based correspondent for Haaretz, Israel's biggest morning paper, is sitting around the press room of the State Department, smiling shyly, consenting to be interviewed by ABC, and feeling quite strange. He will probably go back to Israel this summer. "That's the right time to go home, isn't it?" he says. "What other story can I find in Washington?" What indeed?For he was the catalyst.
"To tell you the truth," he says, "I feel a little bit sad. I mean it is a little sad. You know we have an expression in Israel. It says, 'When your enemy falls, don't be happy.' And especially Rabin - he isn't my enemy."
Dan Margalit is about as close as you can come to a mild-mannered reporter. He is 39, with 12 years of working for Haaretz behind him: the kind of guy who didn't believe at all the tip his wife received from one of his sources while he was up in New York following Rabin on an official visit to this country.
The source claimed that Leah Rabin had an account at the National Bank of Washington. It is illegal for an Israeli living in Israel to hold a foreign bank account, which is why Margalit told his wife at the time, "This is a bombshell. I don't believe it." And why he also says, "Listen, I didn't even dare to think Yitzhak had an account . . . It's a bad law - I agree with that. But if it is a law in Israel, then the prime minister should be the first to obey it."
So certain was Margalit that he's received a bum tip, that he went to Rabin's spokesman and said, "If Rabin issues a flat denial (I'll believe it) unless I have hard evidence he is lying." The spokesman promised to get an answer for the reporter.
The reporter waited. The reporter gave the spokesman his schedule. The reporter flew back to Washington.
"When (the spokesman) was 100 per cent sure I'm in the airplane, he called my home and told my wife, 'Ask Dan not to do anything with it. When we're back in Israel I'll call him'."
But that weekend Margalit discovered that three Israelis who worked at the embassy had gone to the National Bank of Washington where one of the clerks informed them delightedly, "Oh - your First Lady was here yesterday."
"Do you mean," Margalit quotes a shocked Israeli, as saying, "do you mean to tell me Leah Rabin has an account here?" The clerk said nothing.
For an entire day, Margalit tried to find someone to make a deposit in Leah Rabin's account. When his efforts failed, he had, as he says with a broad smile, "No other alternative but to make myself the hero."
Ah well. We do what we must. Bright and early Monday morning ("So they wouldn't get a chance to close the account") he dropped in on the Dupont Circle Branch of the National Bank of Washington, gave Leah Rabin's account his 50 bucks, and accepted with wonderful resignation the clerk's announcement that she couldn't give a receipt. All he had to know was that the account existed.
His story filed, the reporter then received a call from Jerusalem. THe office of Rabin's spokesman was calling to tell Margalit "he doesn't deal with personal matters."
Margalit says that his response at the time was "Heh-heh-heh." This may have given the spokesman pause, because later on the newspaper was informed that an official comment would be forthcoming, but that they couldn't find the prime minister. ("Can you believe," demands Margalit, "that in a country like Israel where war can break out any moment, he can't find the prime minister?")
In any case, that same day, Leah Rabin phoned Haaretz to say that she did in fact have a bank account, but it contained only about $2,000. The rest was front-page drama. The prime minister announced later that he shared responsibility for the account. The couple donated $2,000 to autistic children. Then it was revealed that there were, in fact, two accounts. The Rabins had $18,000 in the accounts when they left Washington in 1973, after his tenure as ambassador; there was $10,000 remaining last month.
(Margalit says he tried to find out how much money there was in the accounts by phoning a relative of Leah Rabin's who was given the bank documents; but the relative told the reporter that he didn't know how much pocket money, either, because Leah Rabin had said she didn't need the documents and he could destroy them.)
Margalit smiles because he is being asked if he's getting a raise as a reward from his employers. "No. That's for Americans." He shrugs again. "I'm getting a bonus, I think. Thirty dollars."
And later he says. "You know. I find this a good sign for democracy in Israel that Rabin had to leave. Five years ago I don't think this could have happened."
But isn't this a silly way to go? he is asked. To lose so much over so little?
He shakes his head. "You know whenever this happens in another country, it's always 'silly.' With Watergate, we non-Americans, we Israelis, we Arabs, we Frenchmen, used to tell you. 'But it's such a stupid affair, this Watergate.'
"But you didn't agree with us. And you were right.
"A bad law, a semi-bad law - that is not important. What is important is that the prime minister did not obey the law for four years."