Israel State Archives Enlists to Rehabilitate Golda Meir’s Image

The official historians didn't settle for memorializing Israel's only female prime minister; they used slanted interpretation to make her the heroine of the Yom Kippur War.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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PM Golda Meir, accompanied by her Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (C), meets with Israeli soldiers at a base on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War, Nov. 21 1973.
PM Golda Meir, accompanied by her Defense Minister Moshe Dayan (C), meets with Israeli soldiers at a base on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War, Nov. 21 1973.Credit: Reuters
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

On September 9, Col. (res.) Zussia Kaniazer, formerly a top figure in the research side of Military Intelligence, was buried in Ramat Hasharon. As head of MI’s Jordan desk, he had closely followed the meeting, on September 25, 1973, between Prime Minister Golda Meir and Jordan’s King Hussein, at the Mossad’s training academy, the “Midrasha,” north of Tel Aviv.

Only Kaniazer “knew exactly what came up in the meeting,” in his own words. In short, King Hussein reported to Meir that the Syrian army was deployed in an attack formation and the Syrian attack would be coordinated with an Egyptian attack. “Hussein did not provide a day and time, he didn’t know.”

King Hussein found the time to come and provide a warning, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, five weeks before the Knesset election. The meeting, which was only reported in the Israeli press in 1988, setting off a search by the army for the leaker, is no longer a secret but the full transcript is still locked away, out of fear of angering the Jordanian authorities. The meeting remains at the center of the dispute over the intelligence, operational and political failures that led to the tragedy of the Yom Kippur War: inside MI, between the intelligence officers of the regional commands and those in the research division; within the research division, between the branch heads and the commander of the division; between MI and the Mossad; between MI and army Chief of Staff David Elazar; between Elazar and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan; and between all those and Meir.

Many of the main figures passed away years ago, younger officers have grown old, surprising considering the 43 years that have passed since then, and of the main actors in the campaign of counterclaims, only two retired generals remain, the heads of MI and of the Mossad at the time, Eli Zeira and Zvi Zamir, respectively.

Most of those who participated in the war in 1973 have fought over writing its history since then. Chaim Herzog received exclusive help from Elazar in writing in the chief of staff’s favor and against Dayan. The IDF’s history department was pressured from all sides and only after 30 and 40 years did it publish its studies, on the history of the war (Elhanan Oren) and on the decision making in the high command (Shimon Golan, the best and most authoritative of the studies on 1973).

Prime Minister Golda Meir in kibbutz Shefayim, 1950.Credit: Brauner Teddy

Now the State of Israel has joined the fracas, in its own right, in a scandal that requires its own investigation: The official State Archives is pretending to decide between the warring versions, showing mercy to one side against the other — without professional authority and through a dubious process.

The archives are a treasure of documents, which are supposed to be available to the public and should speak for themselves, without any need for a spokesman. It is nice that the experts in the archives are volunteering their assistance, but it is quite bad that under their official government mantle they are emphasizing certain facts and ignoring others, arbitrarily determining which of the survivors to speak for and choosing sides.

“Golda Meir, the Fourth Prime Minister, a Selection of Documents and Passages from the Chapters of her life” (chief editor Haggai Zoref) is a volume of almost 700 pages covering her 80 years. The title is clever: In Hebrew it uses a play on words that calls her the fourth prime minister in total, but grammatically avoids referring to her as the first, and still only, female prime minister.

The book is described as a commemorative volume, the 10th in a series dedicated to the memory of past Israeli presidents and prime ministers. This is a problematic formula: The great leaders of the nation, the overblown title attached to them, along with the Knesset speakers, even though their jobs are often too big for them, are the heroes of the books. The editors, civil servants, disappear in comparison to the distinguished leaders and are busy shining the flaws in their portraits. The political success in reaching their elected positions is translated into exalted qualities, unrelated to the balance between positive and negative. A psalm to those being commemorated.

Prime Minister Golda Meir with Ariel Sharon visiting the Southern Command in Sinai during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.Credit: Tzion Yehuda/GPO

The flattery of the government historians is a right granted to presidents and prime ministers, such as a tax-exempt salary, a free newspaper (may there be many more) for the rest of their lives, and two burial plots in the special section on Mount Herzl. Almost an autobiography, written in the third person. It will be a challenge when the day comes to memorialize former President Moshe Katsav and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Will the choice of documents also include the indictments, guilty verdicts and sentences? The archives will certainly praise their efforts in draining the swamps while in Ma’asiyahu Prison.

For Ariel Sharon it would be best to put in the report of the investigating officer, Haim Laskov, on his responsibility for the Mitla Pass battle, and his testimony before the Kahan Commission investigating the Sabra and Chatila massacres, which recommended removing him as defense minister. In the book about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the reader should not be spared the suspect’s testimony to the police, the harsh public report of the attorney general against him and what the Jerusalem district prosecutors said about him.

The volume on Meir identifies with her and is very fond of her. For good reason. Her work, as a member of the generation that fought to establish the state and define its character, is worthy of the appreciation reflected in the chapters on her climb up through the rungs of the party and government, and her striving for equality and employment when she was the minister of labor during the period of shortages and austerity. Born in the late 19th century, she conducted herself with a humility that verged on asceticism, in accordance with the principles that many Labor leaders preached but to which only some complied.

Meir made do with very little, but she was no nun. In a rather daring mention of what was once taboo to mention in official history, the State Archives declared that in addition to her kitchen, and the “kitchen cabinet,” Meir’s apartment also had a bed, which she shared with someone from David Ben-Gurion’s generation, 12 years older than her: “When her marriage became shaky, Golda began to develop a romantic relationship with David Remez, who was the person most responsible for her advancement in the movement. The relationship turned into a real love story that continued for years.” Romance, and in today’s terms, also sexual harassment.

Golda Meir with David Remez, 1948.Credit: GPO

When the state was founded, Meir was the most senior woman in Mapai, the forerunner of today’s Labor Party. Her basic approach to foreign policy and security was that of Ben-Gurion, the might of the gun. The day after the massacre in Qibya in 1953, she wondered in the cabinet meeting “how it is possible to aim so that the mortar or bullet will hit only a grown man and God forbid a woman or child. Either they do or they don’t.”

Later she sided with Pinchas Sapir against Dayan in party politics, and with Dayan against Sapir in her approach to security. Her support for the offensive party line brought her the Foreign Ministry portfolio when Ben-Gurion took it away from Moshe Sharett, who discounted her and mistreated her, but because Mapai was more important to her than Ben-Gurion, she managed to join forces with Sharett, at the end of his life, against Ben-Gurion. A middling stateswoman, a great politician.

Her decade in the Foreign Ministry, during the second half of which she contributed greatly to the rise of the American alliance and the dismantling of that with France, prepared her for the diplomatic part of her work as prime minister (including “reading kilometers of intelligence materials every night, until 3 in the morning”). But Meir did not see, or did not want to see, that the equations were not solvable; that what was required from her, as the national military leader, was personal and deep expertise in security matters in order to know both Israel’s strength and the enemy at the same time, and to judge the balance of power while looking down from above. The goals of the war, in the offensive version she approved in May 1973, were not achieved. According to this measure, and not just the price of almost 2,700 dead and thousands more wounded, Israel, led by Meir, lost the war. Any other version is propaganda.

The State Archives is desperately trying to convince everyone that she was not “a serial refuser who rejected every proposal for an agreement.” That’s useless casuistry. She was willing to consider only ideas that the other side (Egypt and Jordan) rejected out of hand and refused to pay the price demanded for peace with Egypt — consent to a full withdrawal, not immediate, to the cease-fire lines — as well as the price of the constant preparation for war. She had a top agent close to the ear, and mouth, of [Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat; she didn’t take advantage of Ashraf Marwan to examine the boundaries of the Egyptian leader’s flexibility, preferring to use him only in order to find out when the war, which was avoidable, would begin.

Her willingness to give up three-quarters of Sinai and her insistence on maintaining Israeli outposts in a quarter of it, without being satisfied with demilitarization and diluting the number of troops, was considered by her, and is still considered by the archivists, as generous flexibility. She pushed Sadat into war when she favored de facto partial annexation and settlement.

In the Golan Heights the settlements not only forced Syrian President Hafez Assad to become a vital partner for Sadat in a two-front war, but also restricted the IDF’s combat method, exactly as happened at the Bar-Lev Line on the Suez Canal.

Yom Kippur War. Israeli troops taking cover from Syrian planes strafing the road on the Golan heights, 1973.Credit: Ze'ev Spector, GPO

In an echo of the statement by British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan in 1957, “Most of us have never had it so good,” Meir boasted in February 1972 in the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, “I think that we haven’t had it so good for a long time.” A year and a half after the War of Attrition, a year and a half before the Yom Kippur War. Do we have territories? Do we have settlements? There’s no war? What could be bad? The Yom Kippur War was not “a war for the Land of Israel,” but for territories occupied in 1967, from which a partial withdrawal was forced on Israel in both sectors. The army’s achievements on the ground at the time of the cease-fire were not equal to the diplomatic weakness, the dependence on the supply of American weapons, the political and social necessity of returning hundreds of prisoners of war and the Egyptian blocking of oil deliveries in the Bab al-Mandab Strait.

Meir, who had forced Dayan to accept Elazar’s appointment of as chief of staff, failed to conduct an ongoing and in-depth discussion with the military command, which itself made the mistake of overestimating the Israel Defense Forces. She was impressed by the commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, Ehud Brog (Barak), who is now the same age that she was at the time.

“They say of the head of the unit,” she said, that “he’s a guy with an IQ of 180. That’s almost enough for two people.” As the person directly responsible for the Shin Bet security services, she admitted that ousting senior officials in the Shin Bet network the after the murder of the 11 members of the delegation to the Munich Olympics also justified her own resignation, but preferred to stay put.

She downplayed the danger of a clash with Arab armies and exaggerated the central role of terror. The scarecrow of the low probability of the intelligence estimate disappears. Zeira and his assistants erred; she was mistaken, because the decisions regarding the activities (placing the standing army on the highest state of alert, designed for a holding action; the failure to draft reservists; and later, a failure to attack first) were a product of other calculations and considerations.

The editors of the commemorative volume present Meir as a war hero and Mossad chief Zamir as her deputy. Meir and Zamir are good, Dayan and Zeira are bad, Elazar is in the middle. They spoke to Zamir, not to Zeira. Photos were borrowed from the albums of the Meir and Zamir families. Reliable testimony about Meir’s declared intention of committing suicide during a tough moment is swept aside. Her attitude towards Dayan’s proposal to use doomsday weapons, or at least to flaunt them, was shelved. Despite the report of the Agranat Commission investigating the IDF’s conduct during the war, which was meant to be forgiving towards the government and to sacrifice the military leadership, there are enough quotations from Meir herself to incriminate her publicly for de facto complacence. The memorializers came to praise Meir and achieved the opposite.

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