The A-Z of Israel
On 22 January, Israelis will go to the polls. The world watches – but how much do we really know about the country that calls itself “the sole bastion of democracy” in the Middle East?
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G is for Golda
Golda Meir in 1970. Photograph: Getty Images
Patrick Tyler writes: Golda Meir was secretly fighting lymphoma and a host of other ailments endemic to a chain-smoking, overweight and sleep-deprived matriarch. As she convalesced in Switzerland in September 1968, Egypt unleashed a huge artillery barrage against Israeli forces dug in along the Suez Canal. With a percussion of violence along the 100-mile-long front, the two armies slugged it out over Israel’s occupation of the Sinai Peninsula since the Six Day War of 1967.
The attack caught Levi Eshkol, the Israeli prime minister, by surprise just as he had learned that he, too, was fighting cancer. The news of his illness was suppressed. But, fearing for Labour’s hold on power, Pinchas Sapir, a senior minister in the party’s ruling coalition, flew to Switzerland to find Golda.
Eshkol had less than a year to live, Sapir told her. The leaders of the Labour coalition insisted that she return to Jerusalem to prepare to assume the post of prime minister, in order to avoid a damaging succession battle.
She had devoted her life to the Zionist cause and the Jewish state. She knew her mortality was a flickering candle. She had every reason to demur. But that was not Golda’s way.
She had clashed and collaborated with David Ben-Gurion, the founding father and first prime minister of Israel, almost her entire life, opposing his militancy in the 1950s but then returning to his side in a war for influence that they waged constantly against the young guard of Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres. They had elbowed her out of the way to build clandestine relationships with France and Germany to purchase modern weapons and, in the case of France, to acquire a nuclear reactor that would produce Israel’s first atomic bomb (see N for Nuclear weapons). She seethed over Ben-Gurion’s rush to do business with Germany; she was appalled by his refusal to tell the Americans the truth about the country’s hidden nuclear programme. She despised Peres, but had remained a loyal member of the inner circle despite formidable rivalries.
By 1968, Golda, like Ben-Gurion and Esh - kol, seemed a spent force to many Israelis. But sitting there, ill and haggard in Alpine Europe, she faced a moment of truth. “As long as Eshkol lives, what do you want from me?” she asked Sapir.
It was her way of saying yes.
Anyone who had ever met the only woman who would achieve the premiership in the male-dominated military culture of Israel (see T for To the End of the Land) probably never doubted that Golda would accept the mantle for which she had waited all her life. She took Ben-Gurion’s chair with the same wilfulness with which she had clutched his coat-tails in the early years, and with which she had imposed discipline and unity among Labour’s rank and file and, most importantly, with which she had soothed and stroked Israel’s friends and donors abroad.
Ben-Gurion considered Golda his secret weapon. This diminutive matron, who had grown up from 1906 to 1921 in Milwaukee and Colorado before joining the Zionist crusade, could reach out so effectively to sympathetic American audiences that their chequebooks parted as if Moses had commanded it.
She had been born in Kiev, but her American experience allowed her to bridge the distance between the Middle East and the US, using grandmotherly looks that could level an adversary with a Yiddish barb or freeze him with a moralising glint. She looked out from dark eyes that conveyed the weight of leadership, but her greatest weakness was a doctrinaire rigidity, to which she clung as if it were her greatest strength.
Her undoing was the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Along with Dayan and the generals, she became convinced that the Arabs would not go to war again unless they could establish air superiority, something that would entail years of investment and training. But Golda misjudged Anwar al-Sadat, who was gambling that a new war would bring the Americans into the diplomatic mix and produce a lasting peace that might win the return of Sinai and save Egypt from economic collapse.
He bet correctly, and although the Israelis claimed victory, nearly 3,000 of their soldiers died. The high casualty rates and recriminations over the intelligence failure devastated Israeli morale. Battered veterans called Golda a murderer and demanded that Dayan resign.
Only in one sense was the war her finest hour. This stubborn and dogmatic party apparatchik, at the age of 75, had held the country’s military establishment together as centrifugal forces were pulling it apart. But her performance notwithstanding, Golda Meir, in so many ways, had barred the door to the negotiation and compromise that might have prevented it all.
Patrick Tyler is the author of “Fortress Israel: the Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country – and Why They Can’t Make Peace” (Granta Books, £25)