History is unpredictable. In 1948, Golda Meyerson, as she was then, was greeted by 50,000 Jews in Moscow. It then seemed there was no hope that Jews would ever be allowed to leave the Soviet Union. In the early 1960s, David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister, in a speech in Tel Aviv, predicted that one day Soviet Jews would come to Israel. Teddy Kollek, his director-general, instructed me to ask the attending newspapermen not to use that part of the speech for fear of offending the Soviet government.
Then, too, it seemed more prophesy at best, or wishful thinking at worst.
Yet in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the first wave of about 170,000 immigrants from the Soviet Union arrived in Israel. In barely two decades, “history” had gone topsy-turvy. Of course there were many factors leading to the exodus from Russia, but we return to Meir.
Having served as foreign minister from 1956 for 10 critical years, during which time she had been diagnosed with cancer, she resigned, exhausted and in poor health. Nonetheless, in March 1969, she became prime minister following Levi Eshkol’s death. It was fulfilling an ambition which restored her to strength in face of illness and fatigue.
From Moses onwards, leaders never seem to know when their time has passed. The tragedy of Golda Meir’s decline and fall as prime minister is painfully apposite. By the time Meir became prime minister she appears to have been totally out of touch with changing social and political realities in Israel and the Middle East.
Example number one: The Soviet immigrants were treated with kid gloves, rushed from airport to absorption centers to three-room comfortable apartments.
Compared to the way the immigrants from North Africa had been treated, it could be called blatant discrimination. A group of Israeli Black Panthers demanded social and economic redress of their complaints and criticism. Meir met with them. They spoke bluntly. Meir’s famous response: ”You’re not nice.”
No, they did not want to be “nice,” they were angry, they wanted more than paternalism, and certainly not chiding maternalism.
Second example: More and more Arabs living in the West Bank and Gaza identified themselves as “Palestinian.” But Meir was adamant, as she could be in all her long-held political passions and beliefs; she just could not accept that choice. She had a British Mandate Palestine passport, proof that she, too, was a Palestinian. (Indeed Palestine had been the Diaspora Zionist name for the Land of Israel before statehood. In 1947, the Zionist youth movements in Toronto, my hometown, paraded under the banner and chant of “Open the Gates to Palestine.” And anti-Semites famously called out to the Jews, “Go back to Palestine.”) The last example is the one that crushed her personally, and brought a tottering Israel into a war which should have been avoided. Now, it is easy to judge in hindsight. But Levi Eshkol had tried to leave a heritage of openness to peace and a program for trying to achieve it. Once Meir was in power, it became a different story. She and her closest adviser as well as other members of her kitchen cabinet, who gathered to give her advice – indeed in her kitchen on Marcus Street in Jerusalem while she served tea – most of her closest advisers wanted to keep all the territories taken in 1967. Her minister of defense, Moshe Dayan, said, “Better Sharm e-Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm e-Sheikh.”
The government and the military were trapped into an incorrect doctrine, known in Hebrew as “hacontzeptzia” (“the conception”). Egypt was too weak to attack Israel. In a major error of diplomatic understanding, Meir did not take seriously the messages of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. She did not believe – could not allow herself to believe – that Sadat meant it.
Recently opened US and Israeli archives show that Henry Kissinger tried to bring about negotiations more than once. Sadat was waiting. Meir remained intransigent. Sadat warned that what he could not achieve through diplomacy he would achieve in war.
The blindness of “the conception” was so strong.
In late September and early October 1973, Syria was moving large forces in positions close to the Golan Heights. The movements were reported in the press.
The week before the Yom Kippur War began, by chance I came across Meir’s military secretary, Maj.- Gen. Yisrael Lior. “Yisrael, I’m worried about what’s happening in Syria…,” I said.
He repeated the accepted wisdom, “It’s only maneuvers.” Thanks to that conception, Israel was completely outmaneuvered.
Eventually, after thousands of killed and wounded in the tragic Yom Kippur War, and a change of government, Israel did achieve peace with Egypt. It would take five years. In the interim Meir had paid with her career, tarnished with a war Israel could have avoided. She had over-reached herself, overestimated her own qualifications, and ability. She had a great heart and a closed mind.
Those who had led Meir to war eventually led Menachem Begin toward peace. Meir fiercely attacked Begin for the Camp David Accords of September 1978. As Dr. Meron Medzini, author of Golda Meir: A Political Biography, reminded me, she tonguelashed Begin in a speech to her party for making too many concessions to Egypt. Unregenerate, lacking the political vision of Ben-Gurion, the constant openness to change of Eshkol, she died unregenerate, more acerbic than ever. Together with presidents Jimmy Carter and Sadat, Prime Minister Begin shared the Nobel Peace Prize that year. Meir died knowing that. She said that rather than the Nobel, they deserved an Oscar.
Sadly, as the Hebrew saying goes, her old age shamed her younger years.
Avraham Avi-hai’s novel, A Tale of Two Avrahams, newly published by Gefen, should be available in bookstores in Israel soon.