ISRAELI Prime Minister Golda Meir would serve tea and sandwiches to world leaders in the small kitchen of her modest home.
Many saw her as the curmudgeonly Jewish grandma, but Meir was straight-talking and tough — so much so that former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion called her “the best man in the government”.
“Whatever faults she had, she had so much integrity, which is not something you find in many world leaders today,” said Francine Klagsbrun, author of Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel (Schocken Books).
“Meir devoted her life to developing the Jewish state and to the Jewish people. She worked incessantly and took on the hardest jobs there were to do.”
Born Golda Mabovitch in Kiev, in tsarist Russia, Meir and her mother, Blume, and her two sisters joined her father Moshe in Milwaukee in 1906.
It was there that she embraced socialist Zionism and hosted Jewish visitors from then-Palestine.
After marrying Morris Meyerson, the couple moved to a kibbutz in 1921. A series of public jobs brought her to the attention of Ben-Gurion and her political career took off.
Meir — who Hebracised her surname — served as foreign minister, which coincided with the 1956 Suez Crisis, and minister of labour in the 1950s.
After prime minister Levi Eshkol’s sudden death in 1969, the Mapai Party elected her as his successor. Despite her position, Meir maintained her small home in Ramat Aviv.
Francine explained: “She had a tiny kitchen, where she would meet with her cabinet and with world leaders, serving them sandwiches and tea.
“Golda would turn the lights out in her Knesset office as she did not want to waste the government’s money. When she was out of office, she would ride the bus, too. They were different times.”
Manhattan-based Francine was convinced to write Lioness by friend Carolyn Hassel, of America’s Jewish Book Council.
Francine recalled: “I admired Golda, but never gave her that much thought when she was prime minister. She was just part of the landscape of Israel.
“I admired her as a woman, although I never thought of her as that special. But as I did my research for the book, I came to admire her more.”
Francine’s friend, historian Robert Caro, advised her to visit Israel to interview people who knew Meir.
She spent a year going back and forth and spoke with around 150 people for the book. Francine also hired Israeli historian Boaz Lev-Tov to help her.
“Henry Kissinger was reluctant to speak with me at first, telling me I had 15 minutes, but we got along so well we chatted for more than an hour,” she said.
“I also interviewed Shimon Peres, which was interesting because I had read a piece on Golda and him and knew there had been lots of issues between them.
“I asked him about that and the floodgates opened.”
Francine spoke with Yossi Sarid, who served as an MK for more than 30 years, and Uri Savir, the man behind the Oslo Accords.
CARING PM: Golda Meir visits a soldier wounded in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Even though she had received assurances from her generals that Egypt and Syria had no intention of attacking Israel, Golda blamed herself for not following her intuition and fully mobilising the IDF, including the reserves. The war’s casualties included more than 2,500 dead and more than 9,000 wounded
Picture: Herman Chanania, Israel Government Press Office
“Sarid hated Meir,” Francine said. “He was due to go to work in America for a while and had promised him a position when he came back.
“When he returned to Israel, the position had gone to someone else and he never forgave her.
“Savir was a Peres man and found Golda terrifying, sarcastic and self-righteous. However, he told me she could also be warm and loving at the same time, especially to people she liked.”
There was sexism aimed at Meir, too, throughout her career.
Francine explained: “When she ran for Tel Aviv mayor in 1955, there was overt sexism, which she condemned after she lost the election.
“During the 1956 Sinai campaign, when she went to France with Peres and others, on the way over, the French made crude jokes about her in French, which Peres did nothing to mitigate.
“Later, the sexism was more subtle, but I believe some of the anti-Golda sentiment that emerged in Israel after she died came from men who had worked for her when they were young and resented working for a woman.”
Meir felt a particular responsibility to the Jews of the Soviet Union, who were locked behind the Iron Curtain.
She had been appointed as Israel’s minister plenipotentiary to the Soviet Union in 1948, despite the fact that Soviet authorities had started to shut down Jewish religious institutions, banned Hebrew language studies and prohibited the promotion of emigration to Israel.
Francine said: “Golda worked hard to help Soviet Jews, particularly through a secret Israeli organisation called Nativ.
“And, as prime minister, she publicly denounced the treatment of the Jews by the Soviets. Much of what she did was secret.
“Meir Rosenne, a prime figure in the Soviet Jewry movement, whom I interviewed, told me that without Golda Meir, there would not have arrived in Israel in the 1990s — long after she died — a million Jews from the Soviet Union. Golda’s work led to that.”
Meir became prime minister in the aftermath of the wonderful victory during the Six-Day War.
But there were dark times ahead. The Palestine Liberation Organisation, led by Yasser Arafat, had upped its terrorist operations and, in 1972, 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Black September at the Munich Olympics.
Meir ordered the Mossad to hunt down and assassinate leaders and operatives of Black September and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
However, unlike other Israeli politicians, such as Menachem Begin, Meir did not believe in the Greater Israel idea.
Francine said: “Golda felt that the territories Israel gained in 1967 would become bargaining chips. She was not willing to give everything back, but was willing to give a little back.
“She was opposed to a Palestinian state and thought that the West Bank could become part of Jordan and that would be a Palestinian state.”
Meir’s quote that “It was not as if there was a Palestinian people in Palestine and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist” has to be taken in context, according to Francine.
She added: “What she meant was that there had not been a Palestinian national movement until Arafat came along and she considered him a terrorist.
“Golda knew there were Palestinians, but they did not even refer to themselves as Palestinians until Arafat came along.
“The hope was to have peace with Egypt, Syria and Jordan, in particular, and, through them, the Palestinian question would be resolved.
“There was a recognition of the Palestinian refugees, but again, the thinking was that problem would be part of an overall solution with the Arab nations.
“Golda absolutely believed there would eventually be peace with those nations.
“She held more than 30 secret meetings with King Hussein of Jordan and put out peace feelers to (Egyptian president Anwar) Sadat and to the Romanian president, the German chancellor and others, but none of those worked.
“Shortly before she died, she told a woman’s group she was addressing, ‘when peace comes remember me’.
“She wanted to be remembered as someone who sought peace.”
Meir resigned after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when an Arab coalition launched a joint surprise attack on Israeli positions.
Despite warnings, she had decided against a pre-emptive strike on Egypt and Syria.
Following the war, Meir’s government was plagued by infighting and questions over Israel’s lack of preparation for the war.
The Agranat Commission, appointed to investigate the war, cleared her of direct responsibility related to her actions, but Meir still resigned in early 1974.
“Golda was devastated by the war,” Francine continued. “She said she would never be the same person after the war.
“She blamed herself for having listened to the generals who kept reassuring her that there was a low probability of war.
“When the Soviets pulled their advisers en masse out of Egypt and Syria, she suspected something dire was happening and she always blamed herself for not having followed her gut feeling and intuition.”
Meir died of lymphatic cancer in 1978 at the age of 80.
“I believe her legacy is one of profound courage, integrity and devotion to a cause,” Francine added. “She gave up much of her private life, her family life, and her health for the cause she believed in — the creation of a state for the Jewish people and its safety and security.
“Golda was also devoted to the welfare of Jews around the world.
“She regarded Israel as the homeland of all the Jewish people and responsible for Jews wherever they are.
“To a greater extent, more than any prime minister before her, she established close ties to America that were crucial and still are to the security of Israel.
“Unfortunately, there have been no women PMs in Israel after her, but she showed that a woman could be as strong and capable a leader of her country as any man, and maybe more than many.”