Was Golda a Better PM Than I Thought?

This JTA article, “Did Golda Meir let the Yom Kippur War happen? ‘Golda’ biopic aims to rehabilitate her image,” is the first time that I’ve seen references to what I’ve assumed was her failure to respond to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s unprecedented public peace overtures (which I heard on the news at the time) well in advance of Egypt and Syria’s joint launch of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. Her inaccurate utterance (which I also heard in her own voice) was that Sadat’s proposal for a peace treaty in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal from Egyptian territory captured during the 1967 Six Day War contained “nothing new.” Sadat proceeded to warn that the ensuing situation of “no war, no peace” was intolerable, prompting him to ally with Syria in launching the 1973 war.

My Jewish Currents article in June 2017 (the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War in June 1967), “Golda’s Missed Opportunities for Peace,” lays out my view that a three-way peace between Israel, Egypt and Jordan was possible in the early 1970s. But it seems that all three national leaders at the time exhibited blind spots that precluded peace. For example, both Meir and Jordan’s King Hussein stubbornly laid claim to all of what is now East Jerusalem, rather than finding a way forward to a peace treaty; outside of the newly expanded municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, there were no major Israeli settlements in the West Bank as yet.

That new JTA piece includes a link to a Times of Israel article indicating that Meir did respond secretly to Sadat, via West German intermediaries, with an effort to establish peace by returning most but not all of the captured Sinai Peninsula. Yet Sadat continued to demand a total withdrawal in exchange for a total peace, refused to discuss this further and prepared for war. This provides a more complete and complicated picture of what was going on behind the scenes than I have long thought. This is a key passage in that JTA film review:

“Golda” does not address the widely leveled criticism that Meir could have avoided war altogether. For months preceding the attacks, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made repeated overtures for a peace settlement if Israel agreed to return the Sinai Peninsula, which it seized during the Six-Day War. He was rebuffed.

[Yet] Documents released in 2013 showed that Meir did offer to discuss ceding “most of the Sinai,” but since she was not willing to return completely to the pre-1967 borders, Egypt rejected the talks. . . .

The tragedy is that Meir was unwilling to consider a complete withdrawal from the Sinai, and Sadat was not open to true negotiations at this point. What Sadat was not taking into account was that Egypt lost the Sinai as a result of his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser’s aggressive actions which precipitated the Six Day War, including his blockade of the port of Eilat and his expulsion of United Nations peacekeeping forces. Similarly, King Hussein had chosen to attack, without provocation, the Israeli part of Jerusalem in June 1967, precipitating his loss of East Jerusalem and all of the West Bank in Israel’s counter-offensive. These circumstances weighed against Meir’s willingness to more fully trade land for peace, despite the wishes of many of us in retrospect that she had.