American foreign policy Israel Middle East peace process

Golda ignored an opportunity. Will Olmert?

The fact that the Egyptians offered a peace initiative to Israel in 1970-1971 and were rebuffed by Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan should be better-known. One reads and hears about this diplomatic blunder periodically in the Israeli media. But my impression is that the story hasn’t sunk into the consciousness of American Jews and other Americans who are concerned about the Middle East. There was at least a chance that the ’73 war could have been avoided if the Meir government had taken the offer seriously. With the Saudi initiative in danger of joining the heap of discarded Middle East peace plans, a brief, sobering op-ed in Yediot Aharanot by Ze’ev Tsahor tells the tale:

Our leaders’ blindness

Golda ignored peace initiative before 1973 War; Olmert should avoid same mistake

by Ze’ev Tzshor (04.01.07)

One day at the beginning of 1971, US Secretary of State William Rogers phoned David Ben Gurion and asked him to speak to Prime Minister Golda Meir in an effort to convince her to seriously weigh the Egyptian initiative aimed at advancing peace with Israel.

The 85-year-old Ben Gurion was at Sdeh Boker at the time. Ripe with age and satiated with years of arguments and disappointments he wished to finally break away from politics. His relationship with Golda was tainted, and he wasn’t inclined to speak to her.

Rogers pleaded with him. The Egyptian initiative is an ad-hoc opportunity, he said, but Golda is not taking it seriously and is rejecting it with contempt. She admires you; perhaps she will listen to you. Ben Gurion complied with the request and asked his aides to connect him with Golda in Jerusalem.

The short conversation between them didn’t run smoothly. Those present in the room could hear Ben Gurion repeatedly explain why Golda should engage in talks with Egypt, based on the proposal that provided a chance for peace in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai. Although those present in the room couldn’t hear Golda on the other end of the phone, it was quite clear that she had no interest in the Egyptian peace initiative.

‘A war will soon break out’

Ben Gurion lost his patience, accused Golda of leading Israel to a disaster, and ended the conversation. For some reason he placed the receiver on the table. Those present in the room could hear Golda calling out “Ben Gurion, Ben Gurion,” but he refused to pick up the phone again and said sadly: “A war will soon break out.” The rest is history.

The validity of historic comparisons is limited but nonetheless there is a fascinating resemblance between the Egyptian initiative from generations ago to the current Saudi initiative. As then, now too our decision makers are made up of politicians lacking any vision; the cabinet is dependent on small parties with vested interests and there is a huge gap between the arrogance of military commanders and the IDF’s preparedness for war. Even today the ethos of control over the occupied territories is stronger than the human rights manifesto.

“We are better off without peace but with Sharm El-Sheikh,” then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan said arrogantly, and encouraged wide scale settlements in the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. And in that leadership test, Golda and Dayan’s adamant resistance led to the failure of the Egyptian initiative. From here the route to the Yom Kippur War was a short one.

Rogers and Ben Gurion were not the only ones in their generation. An examination of newspapers of the time will show that many Israelis understood that the Egyptian initiative had presented an opportunity to bring about peace between Israel and Egypt, and that its rejection would lead to war.

Yet looking back at history shows that the blindness of a leader who foolishly leads its people to war is a more common occurrence than a sober leader who recognizes a political opportunity and leads his people to peace. Golda and Dayan were among the blind, and even the great Ben Gurion couldn’t open their eyes.

The Saudi initiative is now presenting the Middle East with a new and rare opportunity, and once again Israel’s leadership is being put to the test of history.

Shabbat shalom and chag samayach.

One thought on “Golda ignored an opportunity. Will Olmert?

  1. Actually Dayan was in favor of negotiating an interim agreement with Egypt in 1971 based on roughly the same terms that Israel negotiated in 1974-75. This was in territorial terms much less than what Sadat was then demanding, but he probably would have reduced his demands during a peace process. But Meir was opposed to negotiating with Sadat at all. Despite Dayan’s arrogant public statements, he was rather pragmatic as he demonstrated as defense minister following the 1973 war and as foreign minister in the late 1970s.

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