Golda movie mum on how her intransigence helped spark the 1973 war

Just World AdminBlog, Israel, Israeli military, U.S. policy

by William B. Quandt

We are pleased to run this review of the recently released movie Golda, which focuses on the role Israeli PM Golda Meir played during the October War of 1973. Our reviewer is William B. Quandt, who was the chief Middle East staff person in the White House during the war and who has since written widely about it.

The best thing about the movie Golda is, not surprisingly, Helen Mirren’s acting.  She manages to portray, in a surprisingly realistic manner, Golda’s stubbornness, her prickly manner, her compulsive chain smoking, and her deep distrust of her Arab neighbors/adversaries. Mirren also conveys Golda’s ability, despite her lack of any military experience, to exert her authority over her closest advisers, all men, most of them also well-experienced military commanders—Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon, David Elazar, Israel Tal, Ariel Sharon, Yisrael Galili, and Benny Peled.

Missing from the movie, however, is the convincing evidence that now exists that Golda’s hardline stance in the early part of 1973 blocked a potentially promising American-led initiative to start a negotiation that almost certainly would have prevented the outbreak of war in October.  The short version of that back-story is that early in 1973 national security advisor Henry Kissinger had, with Pres. Nixon’s strong encouragement, started talking to a top security adviser to Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, Hafiz Ismail: during two long meetings in the first half of 1973, Kissinger and Ismail discussed several key ideas that would later prove central to the success of the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations conducted in 1978-79. 

An early, and well documented, version of that diplomatic back-story was presented in the book 1973: The Road to War, by Israeli historian Dr. Yigal Kipnis (Just World books, 2013.) The work by Kipnis and other historians on those precursors to Sadat’s decision to use military force to regain some of Egypt’s occupied land has been widely available in both English and Hebrew, so it is surprising that the movie’s screenwriter made zero reference to those revelations, and almost no reference to the fact that Sinai and other Arab lands had been held under Israeli military occupation since 1967. Instead, he led audiences to believe that the decision by the Egyptian and Syrian leaders to launch the 1973 war arose mainly from their deeply ingrained aggressiveness.

During the contacts Kissinger had with Hafez Ismail in the months prior to the war, the central demand of the Egyptians from which they never backed down was that Israel recognize Egypt’s sovereignty over all of the Sinai that had been captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Ismail made clear that once such recognition was granted in principle, the implementation of Israeli withdrawal could be staged over time; and there could be special security arrangements for Israel such as early-warning outposts, demilitarized zones and peacekeeping forces. He also clarified that, while Egypt would uphold the principle that UN Resolution 242 of 1967—the “land for peace” formula—should apply to the overall Arab-Israeli conflict, Egypt would be prepared to negotiate on its own ahead of Jordan and Syria, assuming they would eventually follow along. On the crucial issue of whether Egypt’s peace with Israel would depend upon a full resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Ismail made clear that the Palestinian issue should be left to Jordan and the Palestinians to work out with Israel and that its resolution would not be a precondition for Egypt to make peace with Israel. 

In short, there was a lot from these talks that could be used by a savvy negotiator such as Kissinger to get a process started that might prevent another war while also giving Israel time to conclude the parliamentary elections scheduled for October 1973.

Kissinger briefed the Israelis extensively on both of his meetings, going so far as to give them complete copies of the transcripts of his talks with Ismail. But when asked her opinion, Golda Meir flatly stated that she would not meet Egypt’s key requirement of acknowledging Egypt’s sovereignty over Sinai.  Instead, she maintained that Israel would need to annex some 25-35% of the Sinai to ensure its security, and she knew that Sadat could not accept that. So there was really no point in negotiating. If that meant another war, so be it.  Egypt would lose again, as it had in 1967, and Israel would emerge in a stronger position. 

None of this is mentioned in the movie as background to why the war actually took place when it did.

Other points that struck me as incorrect or misleading in the movie were the following:

** Kissinger did, as shown, meet with Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Simcha Dinitz, on October 8 to be briefed on Israel’s losses and to Dinitz’s request that Washington expedite sending resupplies of military equipment; but not mentioned in the movie is the fact that he also conveyed Golda’s urgent request to make an emergency visit to the United States to meet Nixon and to appeal to the American public for help.  Kissinger viewed this as a terrible idea. He feared it would display Israeli weakness, as well as putting Nixon under huge domestic political pressure, precisely at a time when his presidency was already in peril because of the Watergate scandal.  Whereas most of the movie shows Golda as a pillar of strength, this might have suggested otherwise, and was not included in the movie.

** Dealing with Israel’s nuclear capability is often a tricky matter, since Israel does not officially acknowledge that any such capability exists. The movie gets around this by showing Defense Minster Dayan, on October 9, telling the cabinet in an almost offhand way that he has placed “Dimona” on alert—Dimona being the location of Israel’s nuclear reactor. That almost certainly never happened and is a meaningless expression except as a euphemism for Israel’s nuclear weapons. What seems to have actually occurred is that Dayan, on his own, may have ordered that Israel’s (nuclear-capable) Scud surface-to-surface missiles be placed on an elevated state of alert. In addition, on around October 8 or 9, he requested that Golda invite the head of Israel’s nuclear program to address the cabinet on the state of Israel’s nuclear capabilities. Dayan at the time was apparently thinking of recommending a demonstrative test of a weapon somewhere in the desert. Golda bluntly refused to allow the meeting, in what to me seems like an impressive demonstration of her leadership.  But the movie leaves this out entirely.

** At several points in the movie, Golda is shown as talking by phone directly to Henry Kissinger. To the best of my knowledge, this only happened once, after Kissinger, having made a quick trip to Moscow, stopped to see Golda in Israel on his way home, and then took a call from her shortly after he was back in Washington DC.  Otherwise most of his communication was through the Israeli embassy in Washington.

** Consistent with Kissinger’s version of what he told Golda on October 22 about the ceasefire agreement that he negotiated while in Moscow, the movie implies that Golda was told that her generals could count on carrying out military operations for a few hours after the agreed deadline for all forces to stop firing. Israeli archives now show that after his return to Washington, Kissinger in fact told the Israelis to keep up the military pressure on the Egyptians, although noting that he had to take into account Arab and Soviet reactions, and that the fighting would have to end soon. This was in direct opposition to Nixon’s message to the Israelis that he expected them to stop fighting immediately and return to the October 22 ceasefire lines. None of this is in the movie, but it does cast a rather different light on the endgame of the war. And it led to the crisis of October 24-25 when the Soviets threatened unilateral intervention to prevent Israel from destroying the Egyptian Third Army, to which Kissinger responded by ordering a DEFCON three alert. Again this, does not come through accurately in the movie.

So, see the movie for the acting, but take the time to read some of the recent scholarship on the war if you are really interested in what happened and why.