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Tuesday, April 21, 1998 Published at 09:52 GMT 10:52 UK

Golda Meir

Golda Meir and David Ben Gurion

By Gerald Butt

Golda Meir was the Iron Lady of Israeli politics years before the epithet was coined for Margaret Thatcher. David Ben Gurion once described her as "the only man in the Cabinet."

She was in all ways a formidable woman: in appearance she was tall and austere, with the stresses of a hard life reflected in her face; in personality, she was honest, straightforward and single-minded. In the eyes of the world, she personified the Israeli spirit.

After the death of Levi Eshkol in 1969, Golda Meir was called out of retirement, at the age of 70, to become the new prime minister of Israel.

It marked the high point of a long career dedicated to the cause of the Labour party's vision of Zionism.

Although she was born in Russia and educated in the United States, where she trained as a teacher, she arrived in Palestine when she was in her twenties and lived on a kibbutz.

She immediately became active in the newly-formed Histadrut trade union movement, but broke off for four years to stay at home and raise her two children. But there was nothing of the housewife in Golda Meir.

"There is a type of woman," she said, "who does not let her husband narrow her horizons."

In 1928 she returned to the Histadrut, becoming Secretary of its Council for Women Workers. By the mid-1930s Golda Meir was heading the Histadrut's political department, and was active as an administrator in many spheres of public life.

Her enormous workload contributed to the collapse of her marriage in 1945.

[ image: Golda Meir in 1948]
Golda Meir in 1948
With her children grown, Golda Meir devoted even more of her time and energy to public service. In 1946, she was appointed head of the political department of the Jewish Agency - the body organising the migration of Jews to Palestine.

Late in the following year, with war between the Jews and the Arabs looming, she undertook a daring mission. Disguised as an Arab woman she crossed the border into Transjordan and held secret talks with King Abdullah. She tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to keep his country out of the war.

In 1949, a year after the creation of the state, Golda Meir was appointed Israel's first ambassador to Moscow.

She also won a seat in the first Knesset, remaining in parliament until 1974. During that time she held several ministerial posts and was active in Labour politics.

When Golda Meir became prime minister, Israel was brimming with confidence, having humiliated the Arabs in the 1967 war and captured large areas of territory.

She saw no need to seek compromise with the Palestinians so long as Israel was secure. Her rigid nationalism and blinkered view of the Arabs led her to say once: "There are no Palestinians."

Israel's euphoria in the early 1970s was punctured by the 1973 war. After early reverses, Israel - with American assistance - fought back and won.

But the government was severely criticised for the fact that the country had been caught napping by its Arab enemies. Much of the blame was directed at Golda Meir.

The government won the elections held two months after the war, but Golda Meir, still facing criticism, resigned a few months later.

She left public office, therefore, under something of a cloud and without the recognition she perhaps deserved for a lifetime in public service. She died in 1978.

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Golda Meir

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