There are historians who believe that if Golda Meir had not been prime minister from 1969 to 1974, we would have been spared the Yom Kippur War. Some historians believe, too, that had she not been prime minister in 1973 we would have lost the war.
Essentially, I agree with both of those assessments.
Being hypothetical, they can of course never be proven. Possibly, Israel had no wiser and more sensitive statesman to serve as its leader during the period preceding that terrible war. Possibly, too, another war leader would have shown that same steely resilience that enabled the Israel Defense Forces to turn initial setbacks into eventual victory.
The prewar tragedy comprised, above all, Israel’s – Golda’s – failure to appreciate the potential significance of the change in Egypt from Nasser to Sadat. Her rigidity, her dogmatism, left her wedded to the simplistic doctrine that dictated Israeli policy since 1967: no withdrawal, from anywhere, without peace.
She was impervious to the insistent signals emanating from Sadat’s Cairo that a modest Israeli withdrawal from the Suez Canal could be beneficial to both sides, strengthening their mutual interests in not resuming hostilities and beginning to build a zone of peaceful disengagement between them.
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan advocated much the same phased approach as Sadat. He saw a reopened canal and newly bustling canalside towns as the best hope for a continued peace process. But Golda found succor for her all-or-nothing stand among Dayan’s ex-Palmach cabinet colleagues and she cavalierly overruled the defense minister’s subtle thinking. The Bar-Lev Line – both the concept and the flawed reality on the ground – remained the prime minister’s determined, immoveable position.
That same unswerving determination proved Israel’s greatest asset during the critical early days of the Yom Kippur War.
Dayan, whether out of perspicacity or panic, urged an immediate withdrawal from the canal to a new line of defense, pivoting on the Mitla and Gidi Passes and running along a series of hills and IDF strongholds parallel to the canal but several kilometers inside Sinai.
Golda would not hear of it.
Dayan argued that the canal line was untenable and that the war was likely to go on for months. “I warn us all against planning new defense lines,” the prime minister admonished Dayan in the war cabinet. “They won’t hold. If we move to some new line inside Sinai, it will not hold.” If there was no choice, she said, then of course they would have to dig in farther back. But that was not yet the situation and she would not countenance withdrawal.
It is wrong to equate, as Golda’s most implacable detractors do, her two refusals to budge from the canal line. She was a single-minded woman, but she was not obtuse. Decades of political and diplomatic experience honed her natural intelligence. She understood, deeply, the difference between her prewar diplomatic posturing and her fateful, historic duty to lead the stricken nation in the war itself. She fully understood – and the wartime cabinet protocols amply bear this out – the unique and inescapable burden of responsibility that lies on a prime minister in moments of crisis. (Menachem Begin was to spell out this constitutional truth during Entebbe.) In a very real way, Golda was the victor of the Yom Kippur War.