Golda Meir was a world figure unlike any other. Born in tsarist Russia in 1898, she immigrated to America in 1906 and grew up in Milwaukee, where from her earliest years she displayed the political consciousness and organizational skills that would eventually catapult her into the inner circles of Israel's founding generation. Moving to mandatory Palestine in 1921 with her husband, the passionate socialist joined a kibbutz but soon left and was hired at a public works office by the man who would become the great love of her life. A series of public service jobs brought her to the attention of David Ben-Gurion, and her political career took off. Fund-raising in America in 1948, secretly meeting in Amman with King Abdullah right before Israel's declaration of independence, mobbed by thousands of Jews in a Moscow synagogue in 1948 as Israel's first representative to the USSR, serving as minister of labor and foreign minister in the 1950s and 1960s, Golda brought fiery oratory, plainspoken appeals, and shrewd deal-making to the cause to which she had dedicated her life—the welfare and security of the State of Israel and its inhabitants.
As prime minister, Golda negotiated arms agreements with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and had dozens of clandestine meetings with Jordan's King Hussein in the unsuccessful pursuit of a land-for-peace agreement with Israel's neighbors. But her time in office ended in tragedy, when Israel was caught off guard by Egypt and Syria's surprise attack on Yom Kippur in 1973. Analyzing newly available documents from Israeli government archives, Francine Klagsbrun looks into whether Golda could have prevented that war and whether in its darkest days she contemplated using nuclear force. Resigning in the war's aftermath, she spent her final years keeping a hand in national affairs and bemusedly enjoying international acclaim. Klagsbrun's superbly researched and masterly recounted story of Israel's founding mother gives us a Golda for the ages.
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The visit to America was a fantasy come true. Wherever Golda set foot, she was received with a bursting exuberance no Israeli premier before her had experienced. In Philadelphia, where she arrived on September 24, 1969, a crowd of five thousand met her at the airport, many of them schoolchildren carrying posters that read, GOLDA A GO GO or WE DIG YOU, GOLDA. Afterward, more than twenty thousand people packed Independence Hall and applauded wildly at the end of her brief speech about Israel’s desire for peace. “I am wise enough to understand that the applause was not directed to me . . . It was rather an ovation for the State of Israel,” she said, with required modesty. She knew as well as anyone that the men, women, and children who swarmed to see her in Philadelphia and every other city she visited were as intrigued by the “71-year-old grandmother” (as the press frequently referred to her) who headed the State of Israel as they were loyal to that state. Her simple bearing—she appeared time and again in the same black-and-white herringbone tweed suit—and midwestern twang with its faint echo of Eastern Europe made her seem the American dream come true, the local girl made good. The “former Milwaukee schoolteacher” (another favorite press nomenclature) from an impoverished family had risen against all odds—including the odds of being a woman—to the highest office in her land. Americans, and especially American Jews, who had admired her earlier as Israel’s foreign minister, were swept away by her presence as prime minister. No one doubted that she would hold her own with the president of the most powerful nation on earth. “What can you do? She’s irresistible,” one observer commented. Most people who saw and heard her agreed.
Menahem, who was studying in America, came to Philadelphia with his family to meet his mother, as did her sister Clara, who still lived in Connecticut. They had all been invited to the state dinner President Richard Nixon was giving for Mrs. Meir in Washington the next night. On Thursday morning, September 25, a marine helicopter carried her and her party to the South Lawn of the White House, where the president greeted her before three hundred guests and the first lady handed her a bouquet of roses. She had been apprehensive about this meeting with a new president, Lou Kadar recalled. “That changed the minute they met. She looked relieved and so did he.” Often withdrawn and suspicious, Nixon was all smiles as the two leaders mounted a red-carpeted platform for a brief exchange of greetings. Later he wrote that she “conveyed simultaneously the qualities of extreme toughness and extreme warmth.” He responded to both, treating her with dignity but also with friendly ease.
Her welcome had all the trappings of a grand occasion: a nineteen-gun salute on the White House lawn; the marine band playing “Hatikvah” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” (in that order); and a ceremonial review of the troops, with Golda in her thick orthopedic shoes and carrying her ever-present black handbag as she hurried to keep pace with the president and a bemedaled adjutant army general. At the gala dinner in her honor that evening, she wore a long coffee-colored lace and velvet gown and a strand of pearls, not nearly as chic as Mrs. Nixon in her pink velvet-trimmed dress designed by Geoffrey Beene, but more elegantly turned out than she had ever been. In his toast, the president spoke of the honor of receiving for the first time “the head of government of another state who also is a woman” and pulled out an “old Jewish proverb” that “man was made out of the soft earth and woman was made out of a hard rib,” a corny nod to her proverbial strength. He went on to compare her to the biblical Deborah, under whose leadership peace graced the land for forty years. At the much-coveted dinner, 129 guests dined on sole Véronique and Chateaubriand, with a dessert of “Charlotte Revivim,” named for Sarah’s kibbutz. Afterward, everyone attended a concert by Isaac Stern and Leonard Bernstein in the East Room, Golda hugging both of them when it ended.
The real work of her American visit came in two meetings she had with the president. The Phantom jet fighters President Johnson had consented to sell Levi Eshkol had begun to arrive, but Israel needed more to counter the surface-to-air missiles and other arms the Soviets were sending Egypt. She asked Nixon for an additional twenty-five Phantoms, eighty Skyhawk attack bombers, and low-interest loans of $200 million a year for periods of up to five years. She received “no concrete, direct promise” about those requests, she told a news conference, but she found that President Nixon had “sensitivity” toward Israel’s problems and the balance of power in the Middle East, and she was satisfied with his assurances.
She and Nixon discussed Israel’s arms and economic needs in the Oval Office on September 25 and 26. Nixon would later recall his impressions of her at those talks. Indira Gandhi of India, he said, “acted like a man, with the ruthlessness of a man, but wanted always to be treated like a woman.” In contrast, Golda Meir “acted like a man and wanted to be treated like a man,” with no special concessions to her womanhood, and he appreciated that. When their meeting began, she smiled for the photographers and made the proper conversation, but as soon as the press left the room, she “crossed her leg, lit a cigarette, and said, ‘Now, Mr. President, what are you going to do about those planes that we want and we need very much?’ ” From then on, they “had a very good relationship.”
Indicative of that relationship, they arranged a more direct way of staying in touch. Yitzhak Rabin, who had become Israel’s ambassador to Washington a short time earlier, would communicate with Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, and vice versa, bypassing both countries’ foreign policy departments. Minister of Foreign Affairs Abba Eban fumed at this arrangement, as had Golda when Ben-Gurion bypassed her to work with Shimon Peres. Happy with the president’s wish for directness, however, she brushed aside Eban’s unhappiness.
Nobody but Golda and Nixon knew what transpired at their most private meeting, when they spent part of their time conversing on the White House lawn, where they could not be heard or recorded. “As to the more substantive matters that I discussed with Mr. Nixon,” she was to write in her memoir, “I can only say that I would not quote him at the time, and I will not quote him now.” They each claimed to have kept notes on their conversation; the president told Undersecretary Elliot Richardson that he had dictated a memorandum about the meeting. Apparently, neither that memorandum nor any other notes were sent to a state archive. They remain hidden or deeply classified. Yet based on memos from Kissinger and others speculating about the meeting, historians have concluded that the top secret subject the two discussed that fall day was Israel’s nuclear capability. And through that discussion, they arrived at a historic turning point in America’s attitude toward Israel and the bomb.
In the early 1960s, after Israel had built its nuclear reactor in Dimona with the help of the French, Golda had pleaded with Ben-Gurion to “tell the Americans the truth and explain why” in regard to their nuclear program. Ben-Gurion dismissed such truth telling as naive and dangerous and then found himself hounded by President John F. Kennedy to allow American experts to inspect Dimona regularly. The pressure shifted to Levi Eshkol after Ben-Gurion resigned, and even though Lyndon Johnson had less interest in the matter when he took office, the American visits continued, with Israel doing its best to hide every trace of its nuclear capacity. Eshkol was also pressed to join the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. All that changed after Golda’s meeting with Nixon. In February 1970, Rabin informed Kissinger that Israel would not sign the Non-proliferation Treaty, and not long after that talk of American visits to Dimona ceased. Exactly what the two leaders said to each other at that mysterious meeting stayed secret, but Golda presumably acknowledged that Israel had the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Nixon seems to have accepted this fact on condition that Israel keep the program under wraps, carrying out no public tests and making no public statements about it.
Whatever the precise terms of the Meir-Nixon agreement, from then on Israel maintained a policy of vagueness, amimut, or “nuclear opacity,” in the words of Avner Cohen, a leading expert on the subject, neither admitting to having the capability nor denying it. That policy has continued to govern Israel’s handling of the bomb and to shape America’s acceptance of it as a reality in that country. Ironically, at a National Press Club appearance in Washington, a journalist asked Golda whether Israel would ever employ nuclear weapons if its survival were in jeopardy, to which she quipped, “We haven’t done so badly with conventional weapons.”
Their two days of meetings ended, Golda Meir and Richard Nixon spoke to the Washington press corps. They had no new decisions to announce, Nixon said, but they had made progress toward a better understanding of each other. Golda said she was going home with a lighter heart than she had coming. She had “found in the President of the United States a friend of Israel” with full understanding of the country’s “problems and difficulties.”
She did not go directly home. After two more days of meetings with various government officials, appearing on the prestigious television show Meet the Press, and visiting with Jewish community leaders, she headed to New York City and a whirlwind lovefest. A crowd of fifteen thousand turned out at City Hall Park, many arriving in chartered buses from New Jersey and Connecticut, to catch a glimpse of her. On Tuesday evening, September 30, Mayor John Lindsay hosted a black-tie dinner for her at the Brooklyn Museum (she wore the same gown as she had in Washington). With twelve hundred guests, several hundred more than had been invited for the shah of Iran, it was the largest and most expensive dinner the city had ever given. “Sure, it’s very high,” the commissioner of public events replied to criticism of its cost. “But you had the head of Israel here and the expense of kosher cooking.” (In contrast to the nonkosher presidential dinner at the White House.)
During her three jam-packed days in New York, Golda attended a luncheon in her honor given by the UN’s secretary-general, U Thant, hosted Governor Nelson Rockefeller at her Waldorf Astoria suite, conferred with Secretary of State William Rogers, appeared on the Today show, held private sessions with the editors of Time and Life and executives of The New York Times, had breakfast with Newsweek editors, and lunched with broadcasting executives. When she appeared at a rally of almost four thousand Jewish high school and college students at Madison Square Garden, she received a ten-minute standing ovation. An overflow audience of two thousand massed outside to cheer her as she came and left. “It’s overwhelming,” she said, beaming, of her New York reception. “It’s beyond anything I ever dreamed of.”
And off she flew, in an El Al airplane, to a star-studded dinner in Los Angeles, where Governor Ronald Reagan shared the dais with her and the actor Gregory Peck asked her to dance. (She declined, regretfully.) Addressing the glittering audience, she told of how she had been kept so busy in New York that she did not have time to go to Macy’s basement to buy pots and pans, the way she used to. They loved it. When she turned serious, she spoke of her willingness to travel anywhere to make peace with Arab leaders. The problem was that what the Arabs wanted “could not be settled by compromise—they want us dead. We have decided to stay alive.” It was a line she repeated often, with variations, especially to the press.
Table of Contents
Cast of Characters xi
Introduction: “Call Me Golda” xv
PART ONE • STUBBORN ROOTS
1 The Carpenter’s Daughter 3
2 An American Girl 27
3 “Dearest Gogo” 44
4 The Path to Palestine 62
PART TWO • ASCENT
5 “New Jews” 83
6 The Dark Years 106
7 A Star Is Born 118
8 Pioneer Woman 137
9 Black Clouds Rising 153
10 “And the Heart Breaking” 176
11 Life and Death 192
12 Ein Breira—No Alternative 220
13 “Nevertheless: A Woman” 245
14 1947: The Turning Point 269
15 “The Time Is Now” 294
PART THREE • MADAM MINISTER
16 Moscow 325
17 “Either Immigrants or Shoes” 351
18 The Politician 375
19 “Golda Meir” 396
20 Conflict and Charisma 421
21 “A Mutual Distancing” 443
22 Seat of Power 471
PART FOUR • PREMIER
23 The Chosen 497
24 A Different Kind of War 514
25 “What Has Happened to Us?” 535
26 Terror, Territories, and the Palestinian Question 558
27 Premier Meir and President Sadat 584
28 “I Will Never Again Be the Person I Was” 610
29 An “Irrevocable” Decision 639
30 “My Only Fear Is to Live Too Long” 662
Endings: “I’ve Always Been a Realist” 684