When Levi Eshkol died of a heart attack on February 26, 1969, the Israeli public may have been surprised but no one in the leadership of the ruling Mapai party was. The prime minister was only 73 but he had been suffering for some time, not only from heart disease but also from cancer.
As early as the preceding autumn, the party’s secretary-general, Pinchas Sapir, had approached Golda Meir to inform her that he wanted her to succeed Eshkol when the time came.
At the time, Meir, who was 70, was not exactly a fount of good health herself. She had been diagnosed with lymphoma earlier in the decade but also suffered at various times from “kidney stones, gallbladder attacks, migraine headaches, shingles, phlebitis, heart troubles and simple exhaustion,” writes Francine Klagsbrun in “Lioness: Golda Meir and the Nation of Israel,” a 2017 biography of Israel’s fourth prime minister. It probably didn’t help that Meir smoked as many as 70 cigarettes a day.
When Sapir, Labor’s éminence grise, came to discuss Meir’s political future with her, she was at a health spa outside Zurich.
In the manner that characterized a generation of Israeli politicians for whom it was bad form to show any sign of personal ambition, she reportedly replied to Sapir’s suggestion that she prepare to become prime minister, “I, an old, weak woman — what are you talking about?”
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Three years earlier, in January 1966, Meir had not only resigned as foreign minister after a decade in the job, but announced her retirement from politics altogether.
A mere month later, however, she allowed herself to be persuaded to accept the demanding role of Mapai secretary-general.
Although, in her calculated petulance, she quit that position a half-year later (and was succeeded by Sapir), Meir remained a Knesset member. And it was she who in January 1968 oversaw the coming together of Mapai, Rafi (David Ben-Gurion’s splinter party) and Ahdut Avoda (a break-off from the socialist Mapam party) in what was now a unified Labor Party.
The public knew and admired Golda, but didn’t imagine her as a contender for the top post. Klagsbrun refers to several polls taken within days of Eshkol’s death. One asked voters whom they wanted to see as Eshkol’s successor, the other asked whom they expected the party would choose for the position.
In the first poll, 45 percent named Moshe Dayan, the charismatic defense minister during the Six-Day War two years earlier, as their choice for prime minister, and 32 percent preferred Yigal Allon, also a respected general, who had become acting prime minister immediately after Eshkol’s death. Meir was not mentioned at all.
In the second survey, only 1 percent said they expected the party to nominate Meir to take Eshkol’s place. By then, however, the party had already decided to do just that. (Sapir had convinced both Dayan and Allon to stand down by promising each of them that he would be next in line.)
On March 7, 1969, the Mapai central committee voted to confirm the leadership’s nomination of Meir to replace Eshkol, not only as a caretaker until the next election, but also as its candidate for the permanent post in the vote scheduled for November.
Meir would later say she was caught unawares when the request came, and wanted to turn it down, but was convinced by her children that her country needed her.
On March 17, Meir presented her choices for the cabinet to the Knesset for approval, and the parliament voted overwhelmingly to confirm the new government, with 12 abstentions. Only one MK voted against: Former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who was nursing an old political grudge against her.
Like Eshkol, she assembled a unity government — meaning a coalition that included both Menachem Begin’s Gahal party (a predecessor to Likud) and the socialist Mapam.
Six months later, in the general election, with Mapam also running with it, Labor won 46 percent of the vote, the closest any Israeli party has come to winning an outright majority in a Knesset election.
Klagsbrun notes that when Meir was sworn in that day as prime minister, she was only the third woman globally to attain that lofty position. (Preceding her were Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon, in 1960 and Indira Gandhi of India in 1966.)
Meir was re-elected in December 1973, but resigned the prime ministership four months later, on April 11, 1974, following the publication of the Agranat Commission’s report on the country’s preparedness for the Yom Kippur War.
That document exonerated Meir’s performance in the war, but she felt that it was “the will of the people” that her government step down. She died four years later, on December 8, 1978.
Although it was largely due to Meir’s strength and composure that Israel could recover from the surprise attack at the start of the October 1973 war, and retake the positions both in Sinai and the Golan that were overrun by Egyptian and Syrian forces, in the public memory she has always been seen as responsible for the complacency that let Israel be surprised in the first place.
There also remains a widespread belief that she missed several opportunities to make peace with Egypt, something that would have altered Israel’s strategic situation and obviated the need for President Anwar Sadat to go to war in 1973 to regain the Sinai Peninsula.