Sunday, June 7, 2015

Golda Meir's Political and Personal Struggle After the Yom Kippur War

Many of the posts appearing here are about Golda Meir, Israel's fourth prime minister and the only woman (so far) to head the government. This material comes from a collection of Golda's speeches and letters which will soon be published in a  commemorative volume in the series on Israel's late prime ministers and presidents.  The book will shed new light on her role as prime minister and especially on her leadership during the Yom Kippur war of October 1973.

Cover of a book by journalists published after the war
During the war Golda was acutely conscious of the danger that Israel's military reverses would harm its international standing and its fate in the political struggle which would follow. The prime minister, who was already 75 years old, reacted emotionally to the death of thousands of soldiers.  According to her memoirs she felt guilty that she had not overruled her advisers and insisted on calling up the reserves before war broke out. She wanted to resign, but felt she could not evade her responsibilities, especially the need to discover the fate of the soldiers missing in action and to ensure the return of those held prisoner in Egypt and Syria.

And she could not abandon the political struggle. On March 4 1974, after a stormy party meeting led her to threaten resignation, Foreign Minister Abba Eban wrote to her in typically convoluted style: 
" I understand the depth of the feelings which exploded in you yesterday afternoon, and I have no argument against them. On the other hand I am constantly aware of the international aspects of the problem. The implications are serious and all agree that the events of yesterday indicate a weakening of our position, and especially a weakening of the opportunities which have opened up recently …. which I fear  that the public does not sufficiently appreciate. It seems to me that you deserve – and all of Israel deserves – that your central responsibility in advancing the chances for peace be exerted "

(translated from the Hebrew).

We have already written here about the disengagement of forces agreements signed during the last months of Golda's government, which were indeed the first stage in the process  leading to peace with Egypt.  This month we mark the anniversary of the return of the POWS following the agreement with Syria on 31 May 1974. 
 After the interim report of the Agranat committee left the political leadership untouched, the public demand for the resignation of Defence Minister Moshe Dayan became unbearable. On April 10 1974 Golda resigned, and Dayan had to follow suit. However Golda continued to head a caretaker government until her successor Yitzhak Rabin had formed a new coalition. Meanwhile US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger helped to negotiate Israeli withdrawal from the part of Syria it had captured in October 1973 and from the deserted Syrian town of Kuneitra, which has figured in the fighting in Syria in recent months.  Golda was afraid that any withdrawal beyond the "purple line" of 6 October 1973 would set a dangerous precedent and she had great sympathy for the opposition led by settlers from the Golan kibbutzim whose lands bordered on Kuneitra.

Following the war and the rise in oil prices, Israel's economic situation was desperate. As well as the return of the POWs and ending a war of attrition with Syria, the most important factor in Golda's decision to agree to withdrawal was the need for US military support and economic assistance. On Dayan's initiative, she proposed a long term commitment by the US to accompany the agreement,  ensuring military aid, and a written promise by the president not to demand that Israel to come down from the Golan Heights. On 12 May Golda wrote to Kissinger giving details of Israel's demands. The assurance on the Golan included on a draft of 10 May was left out. She added:

“Mr. Secretary, if I dare put before you, and through you to the President, requests of such dimension, it is because I know that in undertaking the current actions we are assuming grave national risks. We do so because of our firm conviction that these steps are an imperative of the joint course of policy which we both hope will advance the course of peace." 

 President Nixon, already deeply embroiled in the Watergate affair which led to his resignation, was reluctant to give an assurance on the Golan. It was not included in the letters which accompanied the agreement. When Nixon visited Israel in June 1974, Kissinger promised that he would sign the letter on the plane. He didn't. It was finally signed by his successor Gerald Ford in September 1975. But that's a story for another post……
Wounded  Syrian POWs are returned home, 1 June 1974
Photograph: Government Press Office


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