Golda Meir: The Iron Lady of the Middle East by Elinor Burkett
In 1969, at the age of 70, Golda Meir was called out of retirement to serve as Israel's prime minister, but her grandmotherly appearance was deceptive
The Sunday Times review by James Barr
In 1969, at the age of 70, Golda Meir was called out of retirement to serve as Israel's prime minister. Dowdily dressed and wire-wool haired, Meir, who was secretly undergoing cancer treatment at the time, played on her elderly appearance. “Do you think that an old lady like myself would have anything to say about things like this?” she asked a journalist, to deflect an awkward question about some military manoeuvres.
Meir's grandmotherly appearance, however, was deceptive. The first female political leader of a western country, she had deployed a “perfectly pitched amalgam of guilt, motherhood, historical privilege and ruthless application of conscience” during her rise to power. “She comes clumping along with that sad, suffering face drawn with pain,” remarked a colleague. “You rush to help her to her seat. She thanks you kindly. The next thing you know, you're dead.”
But her premiership was short-lived. When she failed to anticipate the Egyptian and Syrian invasion of Israel at Yom Kippur in 1973, her previous boast that Israel was invincible sounded like hubris. The Israeli public stopped indulging her old-lady ruse, and so did Henry Kissinger, who arrived soon afterwards to press her to talk to the Egyptians. “What do you want from me? I was born in the last century,” she said. “The 19th century is my specialty,” grinned Kissinger. Rumbled, Meir resigned in April 1974. The cancer killed her four years later.
To Elinor Burkett, an American journalist and feminist who grew interested in women's lack of rights in the Middle East after 9/11, Meir's political career remains extraordinary, and this book is her attempt to rehabilitate her. Burkett interviewed dozens of former colleagues for her research; not all of them, it has to be said, were fans. The widow of the man Meir replaced as premier, for instance, still keeps a crude effigy of her husband's nemesis dangling over the kitchen hob, 40 years on. “Blaming Golda,” Burkett comments, “is less painful than introspection about the national intransigence she mirrored or a desiccated political culture that roped a sick old woman into staying on long beyond her time.”
Yet she fails to shift the blame convincingly. Not only does Meir come across as intransigent, but also as ruthless when the premiership was up for grabs. “She couldn't wait,” observed the veteran politician David Hacohen. “It was clear that she'd kick anyone who got in her way.”
She remains, though, a fascinating subject. Born in Russia (we never learn when - there is a woeful lack of dates throughout), Meir emigrated first to America and then in 1921 to Palestine, with her new husband Morris in tow. After a short stint on a kibbutz, she threw herself into socialist politics, becoming head of the political department of the Histadrut, the workers' cooperative set up by David Ben-Gurion.
Regarded in those early years as a femme fatale, she toured America, raising millions of dollars to arm the Zionists, and, back in Tel Aviv, slept with many of her fellow activists, earning the unflattering soubriquet “the Mattress”. Her marriage collapsed, her daughter complained of being orphaned and her work soured when the British stopped Jewish immigration to Palestine on the eve of war, prompting the outbreak of a murder campaign by the Stern and Irgun gangs that, like many Zionists, Meir supported.
It was the British who accidentally gave Meir her break, when in 1946 they failed to include her in mass arrests designed to disrupt the terrorists. With many of her colleagues in prison or exile, Meir was left to run the Jewish Agency almost on her own. Her political career took off from there. Following the declaration of the state of Israel, she served briefly as ambassador to the Soviet Union, before Ben-Gurion made her minister of labour and then, from 1956, his foreign minister, until 1968 when she supposedly retired.
Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president, said that Zionism would be judged by its treatment of the Palestinians. On that basis, Meir (whose life personifies the development of Zionism from far-fetched theory to reality) shares responsibility for the ebbing support for Israel today. Although in 1948 she was appalled when she saw the empty homes of Arabs who had been scared away or driven out by the Zionists (an episode Burkett does not mention), she subsequently schemed secretly with King Abdullah of Jordan to thwart Palestinian hopes, and as prime minister declared, notoriously, that the Palestinian people “did not exist”. Although Burkett clearly admires her subject, her portrait of this controversial woman does not make it obvious why anyone should share her sympathy.
© James Barr 2013