What would Golda have done?
Would she have appeared before a joint session of the United States Congress in response to an invitation from the head of one political party extended without the knowledge of the president, from the opposing party, to argue against a policy being pursued by that president?
In light of Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech before Congress last week, and knowing that I am writing a biography of Golda Meir, people have asked me that question. My answer invariably has been “No.”
Tough as she was, and as single-minded about Israel’s security as anyone could be, Golda Meir would not have accepted such an invitation, because she would not have wanted to risk undermining Israel’s relationship with the United States in any way. In fact, it was she who cultivated that relationship more than any Israeli prime minister before her and set the course that would guide future premiers.
Early on, she won the respect and admiration of the White House. The president at the time was Richard Nixon, reviled by many Americans, including large numbers of Jews. But surrounded by hostile Arab states, Israel needed American dollars, American arms and a sympathetic American leader. Nixon frequently accommodated her, but even when he didn’t, wherever she went in the American Jewish community, she spoke of him as a “true friend” of Israel. “He never made a promise to Israel he didn’t keep,” she would tell people who questioned her support of him. Her attitude went a long way toward maintaining that support. When she did have differences with American policy, she made sure her quarrels were with subordinates, Henry Kissinger — then secretary of state — was to say. She kept the president on a pedestal, so he could backtrack if he wished on what a lower level official had said.
Even when she disagreed with Nixon himself, she rarely confronted him head-on. During the height of the Soviet Jewry movement, much of the American Jewish public backed a bill introduced by Sen. Henry Jackson to deny most favored nation status to Russia if it did not change its emigration policies for Jews. Nixon and Kissinger, working on détente with the Soviet Union, strongly opposed the bill. At a White House meeting they tried to persuade Golda to use her influence to crush public support of it. Deeply involved in the Soviet Jewry struggle, she simply said, “I cannot tell the Jews of the United States not to concern themselves with their brethren in the Soviet Union.” They got the message.
It’s hard to remember now that there was a time when the United States and Israel did not have such close ties. David Ben-Gurion leaned toward France, especially for armaments, which the United States was not willing to sell Israel. In 1956, when Israel joined with France and England in the Sinai Campaign against Egypt, President Dwight D. Eisenhower criticized Israel on national television and forced it to withdraw from territory it had taken. Nor did Eisenhower or his successor, John F. Kennedy, ever invite Ben-Gurion to an official state visit at the White House. Levi Eshkol was the first Israeli prime minister to receive such an invitation. It came from President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had an almost religious attachment to Israel and warm feelings for Eshkol. Kennedy had assured Golda when she was foreign minister that America had a “special relationship” to Israel and would never let it be destroyed. But it was in Johnson’s administration, and particularly after the triumph of the Six-Day War, that Israel began to be seen as more than a little nation requiring American protection. It began to be seen as a strategic ally, serving America’s interests as well as its own.
Golda Meir built on that alliance, and together with Yitzchak Rabin, her ambassador to the United States, turned it into something stronger and more important than had ever existed. That relationship continued and grew through the terms of subsequent prime ministers. Benjamin Netanyahu has not destroyed it; it will somehow weather the animosity between him and Barak Obama. But given the circumstances surrounding his talk and the whiff of partisanship accompanying it, he seems to be pushing the clock back to earlier days — to the iciness of the Eisenhower era or the coolness of a Kennedy.
Netanyahu did raise worrisome issues about Iran, and he spoke forcefully and well. So what would Golda have done? She would have been as obsessed as he with such a potential danger to Israel. But she would have found a way to work with the president instead of openly fighting against him. She would have remembered that even in the tight alliance she helped forge, Israel needs the United States more than the United States needs Israel. And she would have acted accordingly.
Francine Klagsbrun’s latest book, “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day,” is now an e-book. She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.