GOLDA MEIR 1898-1978
(Prime Minister of Israel 1969-1974)
See also The Creation of Modern Israel and relevant articles under Israel after 1948 for additional context.
In her autobiography My Life Golda Meir recalled her feelings when the Labour Party called on her to assume the office of Prime Minister of Israel following the death of Levi Eshkol in 1969:
“I became Prime Minister because that was how it was, in the same way that my milkman became an officer in command of an outpost on Mount Hermon. Neither of us had any relish for the job, but we both did it as well as we could.”
It was statement typical of a lifetime shaped by a sense of duty arising from her Jewish experience. Born to the family of a carpenter in Kiev in the Ukraine, she was a five-year old child living in Minsk in 1903 at the time of a “pogrom” in neighbouring Kishinev. In the rampage inspired by a medieval-style “blood libel”, which took place with the complicity of the Tsarist authorities, 49 Jews lost their lives, more than 500 were seriously injured, and some 700 houses and 600 Jewish shops were looted and destroyed. That year Golda’s father left for Milwaukee in the United States, and three years later he had saved enough to send for his family.
The Kishinev pogrom was just one of a continuing wave of anti-Jewish outbreaks of slaughter and destruction which swept through Russia after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. Alexander II, the “liberal” Tsar who had emancipated the Russian serfs, had not enforced many of the anti-Jewish laws of his predecessors, and the five million Jews of Russia looked forward to emancipation under his rule. His successor, Alexander III, on the other hand, proclaimed himself as “proud to be an autocrat”. He encouraged the pogroms and revived the laws of Nicholas I, including the so-called “Nicholas system” under which twelve year-old Jewish boys were conscripted into the army for 25 years, and Jews were allowed to reside only in specified regions and towns.
Between 1881 and 1914 over two and a quarter million Jews left Russia for the United States. Others fled elsewhere, to Germany and the Austrian empire, to Britain, Canada and Australia. It was also the time of the birth of the modern Zionist movement, epitomised in the writings of Dr Leo Pinsker, a Jewish leader who had previously worked for Jewish emancipation. In his pamphlet Auto-emancipation written in 1881, he now came to a pessimistic diagnosis:
“Judeophobia is a psychic aberration. As a psychic aberration it is hereditary, and as a disease transmitted for two thousand years, it is incurable...
The Jewish people have no fatherland of their own, though many motherlands…We must have a home if not a country of our own.”
1881 was also the year in which the first of a few thousand young Jews left Russia to re-build the land in the deserts and malarial swamps of Turkish Palestine. One year before Golda’s birth, in 1897, Theodore Herzl had created an organised international Zionist movement, dedicated to the restoration of the land of Israel, and the first World Zionist Congress was held at Basle in Switzerland. When Golda arrived in America in 1906, a second wave of immigration to Palestine had followed renewed outbreaks in Russia.
As a young teacher in America Golda became an active member of the Labour Zionist party, and represented Milwaukee as a delegate to the American Jewish Congress. In 1924, she and her husband Morris Myerson left for Palestine, then under the British Mandate after the First World War, and joined a kibbutz – a Jewish communal settlement. In those early years of Jewish settlement the kibbutz system, operating on the community-based principle “from each according to capacity and to each according to need”, played a major role in the agricultural development of the country in a harsh and unpromising environment.
Golda eventually became an active participant in the Jewish political life of Palestine. By 1934 she was an executive committee member of the Histadrut, the “General Confederation of Jewish Labour”. Like the Kibbutzim (pl.) the Histadrut also played a key role in the economic development of the country. It began as the sole trade union of the Jewish population. However in the absence of an economic base for capital formation, it became necessary for the Histadrut to undertake the task of creating and administering the first large-scale industrial enterprises and financial institutions. By the time Golda became an executive member, the organisation was both defending the rights of Jewish workers and running the leading building and housing company, a bank, a health service and an industrial conglomerate.
In 1938 Golda Myerson attended as the “Jewish observer from Palestine” at the International Conference on Refugees which was called at the resort town of Evian-les-Bains in France. It was a critical moment in Jewish history. The Nuremberg laws depriving the German Jews of their civil rights had been proclaimed in 1935, and the first concentration camp had been opened at Dachau. Germany still allowed its Jews to leave, but the doors of Palestine had been effectively closed by the British. Except for the Dominican Republic and Shanghai, no country would allow the free immigration of refugees. The Australian delegate at Evian, Colonel T.E. White, reflected the mood of the Conference in a memorable statement:
“As Australia has no racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one”.
In the end Australia agreed to take one of the larger quotas, 9000 refugees over a period of three years.
Golda’s reaction to the Conference was a wish which was almost fulfilled:
“There is only one thing I hope to see before I die and that is that my people should not need expressions of sympathy any more.”
After the Second World War and the murder of six million Jews (including one and a half million children) in the Nazi Holocaust, the British Mandatory authority effectively closed the gates of Palestine to the survivors. Eventually the Jewish uprising led Britain to announce its intention to withdraw from the Mandate and to refer the issue to the United Nations. During this period Australia’s UN representative Dr. H.V. Evatt (later federal leader of the ALP and Chief Justice of NSW) played an active role in formulating the partition proposal which called for the creation of Israel and a Palestinian state in an economic union, and he was the President of the UN General Assembly at the time the Partition Resolution came to a vote in November 1947.
As the UN vote on the Partition Resolution approached, the Jewish Agency, which was at that time the self-governing authority of the Jewish population, prepared for the expected outbreak of hostilities after the Palestinian Arabs rejected partition. In particular the Agency sought the neutrality of King Abdullah of Trans-Jordan, whose Arab Legion, British trained and commanded, was the strongest military force in the region.
The task fell to Golda as acting Head of the Political Department of the Agency. The first secret meeting between Golda and Abdullah took place in a house on the Jordan River. Abdullah said that he would not join in any Arab attack, and suggested a further meeting after the UN vote.
In May 1948, as Israel’s independence approached, the Arab Legion attacked the Etzion Bloc, a cluster of four Jewish villages near Jerusalem. On 10 May, disguised in Arab costume and accompanied by one of Abdullah’s Bedouin retainers, Golda was smuggled through Trans-Jordan to the King’s palace in Amman. Her mission was to obtain Abdullah’s agreement to a peace on the basis of the UN partition. As she described the conversation in her memoirs, she began by bluntly asking the King “Have you broken your promise to me, after all?” The King responded: “When I made that promise, I thought I was in control of my own destiny, and could do what I thought right. But since then I have learned otherwise.” He then suggested that war could be averted.
“Why don’t you wait a few years? Drop your demands for free immigration. I will take over the whole country and you will be represented in my parliament. I will treat you very well and there will be no war.”
(Even after he had joined with the seven other countries of the Arab League in the 1948 invasion of Israel, Abdullah was still widely accused of being too accommodating to the Jews. He was assassinated on 20 July 1951 in the Al Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem – at a memorial service for the prime minister of Lebanon, himself assassinated by a Syrian nationalist five days earlier. He was succeeded by his grandson Hussein.)
On 14 May 1948, in a ceremony at the Tel Aviv Museum, the State of Israel came into existence with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The new state would be based on “freedom, justice and peace, as envisaged by the prophets of Israel”, and the Declaration appealed to the Arabs of Israel to “participate in the up-building of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship.” Golda Myerson attended the ceremony as one of the 38 signatories to the Declaration.
In September 1948, at the height of the Arab invasion, Golda arrived in Moscow as Israel’s first Minister to the Soviet Union. It was a country with a history of intense opposition to Zionism, including the deportation of Zionists to the prison camps of Siberia and laws against teaching the Hebrew language. Nevertheless the Russians had seen the establishment of Israel as a strategic counter to British and American influence in the Middle East, and the Soviet Union had been among the first to give de jure recognition to the new State.
When Golda attended the Central Synagogue in Moscow for the Jewish New Year she received a rapturous welcome from some 50,000 Jews enthusiastically cheering in the surrounding streets. The Soviet authorities were alarmed. The leading Yiddish journal was closed down, and the Jewish Anti-fascist Committee was dissolved and its members arrested. Nevertheless the Soviets agreed to provide diplomatic support and to facilitate military supplies. Most important was an airlift of armaments from Czechoslovakia which were crucial to Israel’s survival in 1949.
In the next few years, however, the Russians found it more useful to support Arab nationalist movements than to support Israel as a means of contesting British power in the Middle East, and relations progressively deteriorated. The Prague show trial of Jewish Communist officials in 1952, complete with a conspiracy of Israeli “spies”, was followed by the “Jewish doctors’ plot” in 1953, in which Stalin’s physicians were accused of attempting to poison him. An exponential growth of officially promoted anti-semitism followed, and then the first formal break in diplomatic relations with Israel as the Russians developed their alliances in the Arab world.
In 1949 Golda was elected to the first Knesset (Israel’s Parliament, named after the Knesset Hagedolah, the “Great Assembly” of sages who collated the Hebrew Bible after the return from Babylon in the fifth century BCE). Despite the opposition of some religious members to the appointment of a woman, she became Minister for Labour. She introduced the National Insurance Act and other social legislation, and she was also largely responsible for the enormous housing and infrastructure projects needed to cope with the massive waves of immigration which followed independence.
In 1956, she followed the custom of adopting a Hebrew name, changing her name from Myerson to Meir, meaning “burn brightly” and pronounced “May-ear”. (Her husband, Morris Myerson, had died in 1951.) In the same year she became Israel’s Foreign Minister, engaging in the secret negotiations with France before the Suez conflict. It was a time when the interests of Israel, Britain and France coincided. Egypt had nationalized the Suez Canal, which had previously been the property of the British and French companies which had built it. At the same time Egypt closed the Canal to shipping to and from Israel and blockaded the Straits of Tiran at the entrance to the Gulf of Akaba, which would otherwise have provided Israel with alternative access to the Red Sea and the East, including Australia. Meanwhile Egyptian irregular forces, described as Fedayeen, were using the Sinai as a base to mount attacks on Israelis in the south of the country.
In the war planned by the three temporary allies, the British and French forces seized the Canal Zone, and the Israelis moved through the Gaza Strip to the Sinai to the Canal and to Sharm el Sheikh on the Straits of Tiran. In preparation for the post-war negotiation, Golda visited those places, and described her impressions:
“The area of Sharm el-Sheikh is incredibly lovely; the waters of the Red Sea must be the bluest and clearest in the world, and they are framed by mountains that range in colour from deep red to violet and purple. There, in that beautiful and tranquil setting, on an empty shore, stood the grotesque battery of huge naval guns that had paralysed Eilat for so long.
Then I toured the Gaza Strip, from which the fedayeen had gone out on their murderous assignments for so many months and in which the Egyptians had kept a quarter of a million men, women and children in the most shameful poverty and destitution.”
Meanwhile the US and the USSR joined in demanding that Israel should evacuate the Sinai desert and should depend on international assurances to maintain access to the Red Sea and to protect Israel from attacks by Egyptian irregular forces. Golda then went to the US to engage in “difficult and fruitless negotiations” with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Her aim was to convince him that Israel should not be forced to withdraw without a peace agreement with Egypt, or at least a formal non-aggression pact. Eventually, faced with unrelenting American and Russian pressure, Israel agreed to a withdrawal from the Sinai in 1957, on the basis that a United Nations Expeditionary Force would shield Israel’s southern border from attack, and that international guarantees would ensure freedom of navigation through the Straits of Tiran. Significantly, it was the failure of these guarantees and the withdrawal of UNEF that resulted in the war of 1967.
One of Golda’s proudest achievements as Foreign Minister, however, was the establishment of positive relationships with countries in the developing world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where Israel provided a “shared experience in nation-building”. On her initiative, Israel sent experts with experience of dealing with some of Israel’s development problems, and provided active assistance in agricultural, public health and education projects.
In 1960 Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official who was in charge of organizing the transport of millions of the Jews of Europe to the extermination camps, was found in hiding in Argentina by Israeli agents. He was seized and smuggled out of the country, and brought to Israel for trial. Argentina accused Israel of violating its sovereignty and demanded that the prisoner be returned. Golda addressed the Security Council with a powerful speech, and eventually Argentina was persuaded to accept an apology and to withdraw its demand for Eichmann’s return.
In 1966 Golda retired as Foreign Minister and left the government. However after a short time duty called again, and as Secretary-General of Mapai (an acronym for the “Labour Party of Israel”) until 1968 she worked to bring together the various fragments of the labour movement to form the entity known as the “Labour Alignment”, which resulted in a new stabilization of the Israeli political scene. However she was not part of the government of Levi Eshkol during the Six-day War of 1967, and the intense diplomatic pressures which preceded and followed the war were handled in a rather different style (and with some misgivings in the Cabinet) by the polished and urbane Abba Eban as Foreign Minister.
Then, in February 1969, Levi Eshkol died in office. A contest for the succession now arose between Defence Minister Moshe Dayan, a former Chief of Staff and Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon, the former leader of the Palmach commando force. In order to avoid a damaging political split the Central Committee of the Labour Alignment called on Golda Meir, now nearly 71 years of age and diagnosed with lymphoma, to return from her retirement and become Prime Minister.
The period of her government was momentous. It began during a war and with a fruitless search for peace. A new concept of Palestinian identity emerged, together with the international terrorist strategy of a re-organised Palestine Liberation Organisation under Yasser Arafat. For the first time Jews were permitted to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Israel; the first settlements appeared in the Territories; and Israel was shaken to the core by the surprise attack of the October War of 1973.
As the new Prime Minister of a tiny country of three million people (about one-third the size of Tasmania) Golda came to office at a time of national optimism. Two years earlier the forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan had massed on Israel’s borders. The “guarantees” that Golda had received in 1956 had proved worthless. The United Nations Emergency Force in the Sinai had simply been withdrawn at Egypt’s demand, and Egypt had blockaded the Straits of Tiran in defiance of the international assurances that had been given in 1956. On 25 May 1967 Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had announced to the Egyptian parliament:
“The problem before the Arab countries is not whether the port of Eilat should be blockaded or how to blockade it – but how totally to exterminate the State of Israel for all time.”
In a pre-emptive strike on 6 June 1967 Israel had effectively destroyed the opposing air forces on the ground, and gained possession in the ensuing war of the Sinai, the Gaza strip, the West Bank, the Golan and East Jerusalem (including the holy places in the Old City.
Then, in Resolution 242 the Security Council had affirmed “the principles which should apply in the establishment of a just and lasting peace”, including the “right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force”.
Now, as Golda began her term as Prime Minister in 1969, Israel’s existence was no longer precarious and problematical. The country had survived a threat of attack by its three immediate neighbours, and the Territories now in its possession created a “strategic depth” which provided a sense of security which had not been known since the state was established. The policy adopted by the Israeli government was therefore to demand full recognition by the confrontation states as well as direct face-to-face negotiations with them, in order to achieve a secure long-term peace in exchange for territory as envisaged by Resolution 242.
However in 1969 the prospects of such a negotiated peace did not seem to be great. In September 1967 the Arab League Conference at Khartoum had issued the statement which came to be known as the “Three No’s”: “No peace, no negotiations, no recognition.” Dr. Gunnar Jarring, the Swedish ambassador appointed as the United Nations Special Representative to explore peace negotiations under Resolution 242, reached an impasse. He reported to the Security Council that
“the Israeli Government was of the firm view that a settlement of the Middle East question could be reached only through direct negotiations between the parties culminating in a peace treaty and that there could be no question of withdrawal of their forces prior to such a settlement. The United Arab Republic and Jordan, for their part, insisted that there could be no question of discussions between the parties until the Israeli forces had been withdrawn to the positions occupied by them prior to 5 June 1967.”Meanwhile on the ground the “War of Attrition” increased in intensity. Immediately after the Six-day War both the Soviet Union and Egypt had decided that it was a political necessity to avenge what they saw as a humiliating defeat. The Russians sent massive arms shipments to Egypt including new MiG fighter planes and improved SAM missiles. Eventually over 10,000 Russian military advisers arrived, and a Soviet naval armada appeared in the eastern Mediterranean.
The original Egyptian strategy was a campaign of artillery bombardments across the Suez Canal aimed at the Israeli forces in the Sinai. The intention was to cause a continuous flow of casualties and force the Israelis into a unilateral withdrawal from the Canal. The prospect of any such withdrawal without peace or recognition was as unacceptable to Israel as was the prospect of passively absorbing the bombardment indefinitely. Israel therefore responded with an intensive retaliation, including the bombing of military positions deep inside Egypt.
On taking office Golda renewed the call for peace: “We are prepared to discuss peace with our neighbours, all day and on all matters.” Three days later Egyptian President Nasser replied. “There is no voice transcending the sounds of war, and no call holier than the call to war”.
As the military situation escalated and the prospect of serious international conflict loomed, the Americans decided to promote a full-scale peacemaking effort, complete with peace plans, international conferences and US-Soviet dialogue. It was a difficult situation for an Israeli government demanding Arab recognition and direct negotiation, and in September 1969, the new Prime Minister flew to Washington to meet with President Nixon. Golda recorded her emotions as Israel’s national anthem Hatikvah (“The Hope of 2000 years”) was played on the White House lawn, but no joint communiqué was issued, and the content of the discussion was never disclosed.
By 1970 Israeli and Soviet pilots were engaged in direct combat in the air, and four Russian MiG’s were shot down. As the threat of full-scale warfare intensified, the American peace plans became a less ambitious proposal for a ceasefire. Nasser urged the Russians to accept it and the ceasefire came into effect in August 1970.
Despite the continuing stress of international events, Golda Meir maintained her central interest in improving the conditions of life of the poorest segment of the Israeli population. In a televised address to the nation she called for wage increases for the lowest income earners, and for the middle classes to exercise restraint to make those increases possible. Another campaign was to eliminate the problem of High School drop-outs in the development towns.
Meanwhile, in the absence of any prospect of a permanent peace treaty, the Meir government developed policies for a benevolent administration of the Territories in the hope that the inhabitants might find this preferable to the previous rule of Jordan and Egypt.
Moshe Dayan, who remained as Defence Minister, set the tone for that administration in his instructions to Chaim Herzog, then Military Governor of the West Bank and later President of Israel:
“Don’t try to rule the Arabs, let them rule themselves. It’s enough that we suffer from Israeli bureaucracy, they don’t deserve it. I want a policy whereby an Arab can be born, live and die in the West Bank without ever seeing an Israeli official.”
In 1969 Israel established the Economic Development and Refugee Rehabilitation Trust, which spent some millions of dollars on infrastructure projects in the camps and provided loans and subsidies for agriculture and new housing. Between 1968 and 1972 agricultural production more than doubled. Per capita income in the West Bank increased by 80% and unemployment in Gaza had been reduced to 2%.
In the current conditions of 2005 it is interesting to recall that the journalist Walter Eytan was able to report from Gaza in May 1973 that:
“The Arab population is more prosperous, and probably freer, than at any time before, bound by increasing economic and personal ties with Israelis… Where formerly unemployment was endemic and terrorism was rife, today every able-bodied person can find work either in Israel or in the Gaza Strip itself (where in fact a labour shortage prevails at the present time) while terrorist action for the most part belongs to a nightmare of the past.”
At the same time Defence Minister Moshe Dayan called for the establishment of “facts on the ground” in the Territories. Immediately after the 1967 Eshkol’s Deputy Prime Minister, Yigal Allon, who had been Commander of the Palmach commando force in the war of 1947-9, proposed a plan for territorial compromise in the event of peace. The aim of the “Allon Plan” was to ensure that Israel would always be protected by a defensive barrier along the valley adjacent to the river Jordan and on the road to the south of Jerusalem. With this objective in mind the Meir government permitted the establishment of some ten small settlements in the Jordan Valley and the rebuilding of four settlements in the “Etzion Bloc” near Jerusalem which had been destroyed by the Jordanians in 1947. The settlements established in the Golan Heights after 1967 were also maintained as a defensive barrier in the absence of peace with Syria. There was also the first settlement which had been established by religious activists returning to the Jewish Quarter in Hebron near the tombs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which had been destroyed in the Arab riots of 1929. .
East Jerusalem, however, including the holy places of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the Old City, had been incorporated into an undivided city of Jerusalem under Israeli rule in June 1967. In contrast to the previous Jordanian administration which had forbidden Jewish access, the holy places were now open to the adherents of all religions. Henceforth the indivisibility of a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty remained a central doctrine, almost universally supported by Israelis and the Jewish Diaspora, and notwithstanding repeated condemnation by the United Nations.
All this occurred within the context of an official policy of opposition to the concept of a Palestinian state as part of any peace settlement, which Golda Meir announced and repeatedly explained. Israel and Jordan were the two state successors to the British Mandate, she noted, and
“there is no room for a third. The Palestinians must find the solution to their problem together with that Arab country, Jordan, because a Palestinian State between us and Jordan can only become a base from which it will become even more convenient to attack and destroy Israel.”
Meanwhile the Palestine Liberation Organisation had taken took new shape after Yasser Arafat and his Fatah movement gained control at the Palestinian National Assembly in Cairo in July 1968. Arafat’s program was clearly stated:
“Our basic aim is to liberate the land from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. We are not concerned with what took place in June 1967 or in eliminating the consequences of the June war. The Palestinian revolution’s basic concern is the uprooting of the Zionist entity from our land and liberating it.”
(The Palestine National Charter, incorporating this principle, was adopted by the Assembly at the same conference. It is available, updated to 2005, at www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/mideast/plocov.htm although it no longer appears on the official website of the Palestinian Authority.)
The PLO acted as a roof body for a dozen different Arab “guerilla” organisations, the most active of which were the Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a Marxist group. Initial PLO campaigns in the Territories in 1968 and 1969 were eventually contained by the Israeli military, and in the absence of local support in the Territories for “guerilla” attacks in Israel in the relatively benign conditions of the time, the PLO now embarked on an international campaign of action against soft civilian targets. The first such attack occurred on 13 February 1970, when a Swissair plane was sabotaged and the passengers and crew were killed, and on the same day seven residents of a Jewish old age home in Munich were killed.
At the same time the PLO began to establish “state within a state” within Jordan.
In September 1970, the PFLP hijacked four international airliners, landed three of them on an airstrip inside Jordan, and blew them up. In the context of the ceasefire with Israel, Egypt closed the PLO offices in Cairo. King Hussein decided to move against the PLO threat to the Hashemite regime, and Jordan erupted into civil war. With Russian encouragement Syrian tanks crossed the Jordanian border and an Iraqi division which had remained in Jordan since 1967, also supported the PLO forces. Eventually an Israel mobilization and US naval deployment persuaded the Syrians and Iraqis to withdraw, and Hussein overwhelmingly defeated the PLO forces. By 1971 their new centre of operations had moved to south Lebanon.
The new international campaign against civilian targets now accelerated. On 10 May 1972, gunmen of the “Japanese Red Army” opened fire in Lod airport, killing 27 passengers, including 21 Christian pilgrims. In September 1972, eleven Israel athletes were murdered at the Olympic Games in Munich, by a group calling themselves “Black September” in recollection of Hussein’s defeat of the PLO. The perpetrators who had been arrested by the German authorities were later released following a PLO plane hijack, and most were later tracked down and killed by the Mossad.
Meanwhile many of the Jews of the Soviet Union had reacted to the events of the Six-Day War with a campaign for the right to emigrate to Israel. The leaders were arrested and exiled to Siberia, but the campaign gathered force and received international support, and by 1972, 32,000 Jews were allowed to leave. One of Golda’s many trials during this period was an unsuccessful mission to Vienna to persuade the Austrian Premier Bruno Kreisky not to close the transit station for the Soviet emigrants after the PLO bombed an Austrian train.
Then, on 6 November 1973, the Soviet-Egyptian-Syrian alliance put into effect their plans to avenge the defeat of 1967. The proposed invasion had been well camouflaged, indeed kept absolutely secret from all but the Presidents and Chiefs of Staff of Egypt and Syria until the day before the attack, with even the military command instructed that they were merely engaged in exercises. Russian advisers were ceremoniously expelled from Egypt in 1972, cordial peace negotiations with the US continued until the last moment, unarmed men strolled along the front lines, and Egyptian officers announced a proposed pilgrimage to Mecca. It was also the time when US President Nixon was deeply enmeshed in the Watergate scandal and threatened with impeachment for his role in the telephone bugging of the Democrat headquarters during the previous election.
The invasion began at 2 pm on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, a day of fasting and prayer on which all but the most essential activity totally ceases in Israel. Following an intense bombardment by missiles and artillery, tens of thousands of Egyptian infantrymen crossed the Canal in boats, bridges were laid, and hundreds of Egyptian tanks raced north through the Sinai desert. As the Israel tanks moved forward to meet them from the mountain passes, they faced a new Soviet secret weapon, the “Sagger” anti-tank missiles, infantry-operated tracer-guided rockets capable of totally destroying their targets and incinerating their crews. At the same time the new Soviet surface-to-air SAM missiles brought down large numbers of Israeli planes.
Simultaneously with the Egyptian crossing, Syrian helicopter-borne troops seized the strategic observation point at the summit of Mount Hermon. An artillery bombardment was then followed by the advance of some eight hundred tanks into the Golan Heights, almost entirely overcoming the first Israeli resistance. It appeared that a full-scale invasion of northern Israel was imminent.
Israel was caught unprepared for the onslaught. The intelligence assessment had been that the confrontation states were definitely not ready for war, that the observed troop concentrations did not present a threat, and that Israel could rely on the strategic depth created by possession of the Sinai. When knowledge of the impending attack became more definite on the day before the invasion, Golda called an emergency meeting, and it was decided to order a partial mobilization. At Golda’s insistence a pre-emptive strike was ruled out.
By the second day of the war the Israeli cabinet decided that the most urgent threat to Israel’s survival came from the north and that the newly mobilized reserves should be concentrated on the Syrian front. After desperate battles in which the few remaining Israeli tanks held the line, reinforcements arrived and a counter-attack eventually drove deep into Syrian territory, and within artillery range of Damascus.
Meanwhile a Soviet airlift, commencing on 8 October, delivered immense quantities of armaments to Egypt. At first the American policy was not to intervene. According to Sachar (see Note 2 below):
“Joseph Sisco and the other professionals at the Near East desk favoured a stand-off in the Sinai; Egypt was the key to peace and should not be humiliated once it had reclaimed its honour.”
However given the extent of Israeli losses and the scope of the Soviet arms deliveries, it soon became apparent that US interests demanded the prevention of a Soviet-backed military success against an American ally. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger decided that the maintenance of American influence in the Middle East required urgent action, and President Nixon finally authorized the delivery of the desperately needed planes and tanks. The first delivery arrived on 14 October, some eight days after the war began. As Golda was later to claim, her decision not to launch a pre-emptive strike had proved to be a crucial factor in enabling the Americans to come to the rescue at the moment of crisis.
As the war progressed the Arab oil producers announced an oil embargo against any nation which assisted Israel. The British and the Europeans responded with an arms embargo on Israel and refused to allow the transit of American arms and planes through their territories.
Eventually the Egyptian advance was halted after an immense tank battle in the Sinai, greater in the scope of forces involved than the battle of El Alamein in the Second World War. Then, in a plan devised and led by General Ariel Sharon (Israel’s present Prime Minister), the Israelis forced a bridgehead across the Canal, and established a presence on the Egyptian side which effectively encircled the Egyptian Third Army, which was still on the Sinai side of the Canal.
With combined Soviet and Arab pressure the UN Security Council now called for a ceasefire, and this was agreed. Once again Golda called for peace and recognition as a condition for withdrawal, and once again this was frustrated by international pressure. The Arabs intensified the oil embargo, cut production and raised prices astronomically. The Russians threatened to intervene on the ground if the Third Army was not released. A number of third world countries, including the Africans who had benefited from Golda’s plans for co-operative assistance, severed their diplomatic relations with Israel.
Eventually, after some months of “shuttle diplomacy” US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger negotiated agreements for “disengagement of forces” with Egypt and Syria. Both agreements required Israel to withdraw from its positions on the ground to new positions some distance back from the ceasefire lines of 1967. In effect the international realities of the “cold war” and the control of oil supplies had denied Israel the opportunity to convert victory into peace. The only achievement was an informal Egyptian agreement to clear the Canal, open it and permit traffic to Israel.
It was also a victory which had not come without sacrifice. On the Israeli side over 2,500 young men had been killed. Egypt lost more than 7,700 and Syria more than 2,000 dead. In Israel it was a time of mourning and sober re-assessment, and the government appointed a Commission led by Chief Justice Shimon Agranat to investigate Israel’s intelligence failure and lack of preparedness.
However, despite the tragedy of the war, the Labour Alignment was still returned with reduced numbers as the largest party at the election which was postponed from October to December 1973. Eventually Golda formed a coalition which took office in March 1974. In April the Agranat Commission published an interim report which very severely criticized the military leadership, but made no comment on the political responsibility of the government. Ten days after the report was released, and in the face of an outburst of mutual recrimination within the Labour Alignment, Golda Meir resigned. She was succeeded as Prime Minister by Yitzchak Rabin.
A postscript. When Anwar Sadat arrived in Jerusalem in 1977 to make his historic offer of peace in an address to the Knesset, Golda Meir was in the receiving line. Later she made a simple comment: “I am looking forward to the day when I can do my shopping in Cairo.” It was a typical Golda remark, communicating immediately the meaning of the peace which Israel longed for, and with a complete absence of rancour.
Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem also highlighted the paradox that the peace was arguably achieved because Egyptians had been able to perceive the “War of the 10th of Ramadan” as a great national achievement. On the other hand, despite the eventual hard-fought victory, Israel was badly shaken by the deaths of so many young men in the “Yom Kippur War”. In this sense Golda Meir’s resignation was typical of her leadership in the way in which it reflected the mood of the nation.
David Ben Gurion is said to have described Golda as “the only man in the Cabinet”, and she is said to have responded: “How would you like me to describe you as the only woman in the Cabinet?” The apocryphal exchange illustrates much of Golda’s reputation for toughness and clarity of vision - and her insistence on real gender equality to the point of abrasiveness. (There is another account, for example, of a time when there was an outbreak of attacks on women in the street at night, and it was suggested that the women should stay indoors. Golda’s response was that it would be fairer to impose a curfew on the men.)
Her formidable clear-sightedness did not, however, imply inflexibility. Indeed her diplomatic skill involved both the ability to convey the essence of Israel’s needs in simple and dramatic terms, and the capacity to recognize when concessions were necessary in the light of the realities of international power. This also required the courage to stand firm against coalition partners who protested against agreements for ceasefires and troop withdrawals without obtaining a formal guaranteed peace.
It was unfortunate that that Golda’s term in office ended at a time of diplomatic isolation and a low point in national morale, although she did live to enjoy the national euphoria of the peace with Egypt to which she had contributed some of the foundation. However she is perhaps most remembered for her ability to convey an understanding of the issues facing Israel with a direct eloquence, as a builder of the nation in its early years with a strong concern for those most in need, and for the trust which she inspired as a firm and steady leader in times of crisis.
1.The “Historical context” in the Syllabus for this topic includes material in
Creation of Modern Israel,
Causes, course and consequences of the 1967 (Six-Day) War,
Causes, course and consequences of the 1973 (Yom Kippur) War, and
Attitudes and policies of the Israeli Labour and Likud parties towards the Territories.
2.Sources for this essay, in addition to the writer’s recollection of the events, include the following:
Golda Meir, My Life(Futura Publications, London 1976.) ISBN 0 8600 7394 7
Howard M. Sachar, A History of Israel from the Rise of Zionism to Our Time (Alfred Knopf , New York 2000.) ISBN 0 679 44632 x
At 1153 pages this is the authoritative work, useful for the school library.
Martin Gilbert, Israel, A History (Doubleday, New York 1998)
ISBN 0385 404018. 750 pages.
(This article originally appeared in Teaching History, the journal of the NSW History Teachers' Association.)
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