The film Golda, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, has sharply focused attention on how prime minister Golda Meir made critical decisions in the lead-up to and during the fateful days of October 1973. Here I offer some evidence and insights from the late Bernard Lewis, the most acclaimed historian of the Middle East in our time. Lewis was an astute observer who frequently traveled between Cairo and Jerusalem, prior to the war. He has left us a valuable account of his experience in his memoirs.
Lewis was well-acquainted with a wide range of Israel’s leaders from his generation and those that followed. They included Abba Eban, whom he knew from an early age, as well as Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and Benjamin Netanyahu. However, apart from Eban, Golda Meir was the first Israeli leader he got to know well, and he approached her as a man on a mission.
“Egypt was ready for peace”
In 1969, Lewis visited Egypt to attend a conference. Gamal Abdul Nasser still held power, and Egypt struggled to rebound from its defeat in the Six-Day War two years prior. Lewis briefly met Nasser, but they did not have a conversation. Still, he recalled, “I saw a lot of people, including old friends, and I was very much struck by the change in mood. I came away with a very clear impression that Egypt was ready for peace. I was sure of it. I had no doubts whatsoever.”
Over the next two years, Lewis’s conviction deepened. He returned to Cairo in 1970 and again in 1971, after Nasser’s death. While he did not meet Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, he met his advisers, and he became “convinced that a direct approach to Egypt would produce results.”
In 1971, he reiterated his view in US Senate testimony: “I am quite convinced that there is in Egypt a genuine desire for peace. I have no doubt about that at all. It was there before the death of Nasser, and it has become more open since the death of Nasser.” In fact, Sadat’s adviser, Tahseen Bashir, seems to have asked Lewis to convey to Golda that Sadat wished to negotiate an interim agreement.
But the Israelis were not interested. During one of Lewis’s visits to Israel, Golda invited him into her kitchen and offered him tea and cake. Lewis made his case for a direct approach to Egypt, but Golda summarily dismissed it. Lewis tells the story:
She didn’t believe me. She indicated that I had allowed myself to be duped by the Egyptians and that it was all nonsense. I tried the same on Moshe Dayan. I think he did believe me, but he didn’t like it. He just didn’t want to negotiate…. I also put it to Rabin. I even wrote Rabin a letter to that effect. But it fell on deaf ears; they didn’t believe me or didn’t want to believe me.
Did the Yom Kippur War occur because Golda thought Lewis had been misled? She missed many more signals in far more important channels. But Golda’s dismissal of Lewis sheds light on why those other messages got lost in transmission.
“Only what she wanted to hear”
Lewis had another encounter with Golda Meir a few years later, on the Palestinian question. In 1974, Lewis prepared a piece that eventually would be published by Commentary under the title “The Palestinians and the PLO.” Lewis began by demonstrating how the concept of a Palestinian people arose only after the First World War. “The emergence of a distinctive Palestinian entity,” he wrote, “is a product of the last decades and may be seen as the joint creation of Israel and the Arab states — the one by extruding the Arabs of Palestine, the others by refusing to accept them.”
Golda distributed Lewis’s article to the entire cabinet, and she summoned him to a meeting. According to one participant, “they spoke for hours. Her aides tried to end it, but Golda kept going, and Bernard didn’t want to be rude.” Golda latched onto Lewis’s historical point about the recent origin of Palestinian identity. In 1969, she had said that “there was no such thing as Palestinians,” perhaps her most famous (or infamous) remark. Now she believed she had found scholarly support to validate her claim.
But she completely ignored the rest of the article, where Lewis had urged Israel to “test the willingness or ability” of the PLO to negotiate a two-state solution — this, at a time when Israel regarded the PLO as a terrorist organization utterly beyond the pale. Golda simply ignored that part of Lewis’s argument.
Lewis later identified Meir’s problem. She was admirably tough, but overly rigid:
Golda was fitted with a kind of personal filtration system — she only heard what she wanted to hear. If she picked up anything in what I was saying to her that fit within her pattern of thought, she would immediately grasp and use it. Anything that didn’t fit just went straight past her.
The same might be said of the entire political and security establishment over which she presided in 1973.
The question of whether historians have valuable insights to offer policymakers is always up for debate. No historical circumstance perfectly mirrors the current moment. However, one abiding truth taught by historians is irrefutable: in human affairs, nothing remains static. Israel learned that the hard way in 1973. This 50th anniversary should remind us once more that Israel must never rest.
This is based on a lecture I delivered about Bernard Lewis and world leaders at Tel Aviv University in June. View the entire lecture at this link.