Review: Golda Meir: The Iron Lady Of The Middle East

By Ahron Bregman, July 25, 2008
By Elinor Burkett
Gibson Square, £17.99

Golda Meir, Israel's fourth Prime Minister, whose premiership ran from 1969 to 1974, was admired throughout the western world, though less so in post-1973 Israel.

Despite suffering from cancer, she was called out of retirement at the age of 70 to fill the Prime Ministerial post following the death of Levi Eshkol and thus save the party a succession war between arch rivals Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon that could have torn it apart.

A tough PM, the chain-smoking Meir kept her ministers on a tight rein and ruled her all-male cabinet with an iron fist; it is a commonplace that people in Israel would often say that, "Golda is the best man in Cabinet".

A good biography on Golda Meir was long overdue and Golda Meir: The Iron Lady of the Middle East, which coincides with the 30th anniversary of its subject's death, is indeed just that.

Elinor Burkett, a Pulitzer-nominated journalist, traces the life of the Kiev-born, American-raised Golda Mabovitch, who married Morris Meyerson, became a Zionist leader, and emigrated to Palestine in 1921, where she held political roles both in the pre-state era and after Israel's establishment.

Burkett is a sensitive observer and her book is particularly strong on Golda, the person behind the legend. This is clearly an author who admires her subject, not least for the way Meir conducted herself during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Burkett describes how, when Israel was invaded by Egypt and Syria on October 6, 1973, and was caught totally unprepared and off-guard, the great war hero Dayan lost his composure while Prime Minister Meir resolutely kept her nerve.

But then, perhaps Meir simply failed to understand the severity of the situation - unlike Dayan, she did not visit the front to see for herself the destruction inflicted by the invaders.

Though beautifully written and highly readable, Burkett's is not yet the definitive account of Golda Meir's life. Despite its author's meticulous research, which includes an impressive array of personal interviews with people who knew Meir, most of the material is well known. This includes the gossip about her extra-marital romances (her contemporary, Dayan, no angel himself, used to say about this sort of gossip that, "the people of Israel voted for me to be their Minister of Defence, not the husband of the year").

I suspect that Meir's future biographer, sifting through Israeli archives, might well conclude that, like another Iron Lady who took her nation into an "unnecessary" war, Golda shouldered full responsibility for the conflict. In Meir's case, this brought more opprobrium than praise. The Yom Kippur War was a terrible war, waged after the Prime Minister brushed aside sensible peace offers put to her by Egypt's Anwar Sadat during 1971 and 1972.

The link is made pictorially, too, with a striking photo on the book's cover of an iron-grip handshake between Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher.

Ahron Bregman is currently writing "Israel and the Occupied Territories Since 1967" for Penguin
Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011