The Yom Kippur War Through Golda Meir’s Eyes: 19 Days That Transformed Her Career

"The movie captures the drama of her war cabinet meetings in meticulous detail, bringing out the tensions and fears that surfaced"

The Yom Kippur War Through Golda Meir’s Eyes: 19 Days That Transformed Her Career

Yom Kippur, one the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, fell on 6 October in 1973. On that date, Egypt and Syria launched an all-out offensive to regain the Sinai and the Golan Heights, triggering what would go down in history as the Yom Kippur War. It would last for 19 days.

During the war, Israel was governed by a frail 75-year old woman who was also suffering secretly from lymphoma. How she coped with the war is the focus on a biopic starring Helen Mirren.

The biopic does not discuss her life prior to the war or her life after the war. So, a little background is called for before discussing the events on which the movie is focused. 

She was born as Golda Mabovitch in an impoverished household in Kiev, in what is today Ukraine. When she was only four years old, the Cossacks carried out a pogrom against the Jews. Terrified for their lives, she and her family migrated to Milwaukee, Minnesota in the US, just four years later.

Golda joined the Zionist movement in the US and rapidly rose through the ranks by force of her will power and by networking. In 1921, she emigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine and began working with Jewish labour groups. She was a socialist at heart who embraced a tough-minded militarism. After Israel was created in 1948, Meir entered politics and eventually rose to the rank of foreign minister in the 1950s: the first woman to become one anywhere in the world. When the then prime minister died unexpectedly, she became prime minister.

In late September 1973, Israel’s Labour Party was making its final preparations for the upcoming elections. Golda Meir was shown in newspaper ads for the Labour Party, surrounded by these words: “Quiet reigns on the banks of the Suez. The lines are secure; the bridges are open; Jerusalem is united.”

In October 1973, Moshe Dayan was her defense minister, a war hero whose career had covered both the 1956 and 1967 wars. The Israeli intelligence agency had succeeded in getting President Nasser’s son-in-law, Marwan, on their parole. He had been warning Israel that Egypt and Syria were getting ready to attack Israel, to redeem their reputations which were laid to waste in the Six Day War of 1967. In one of those ironies that suffuse history, Israel suspected him to be a double agent. His intelligence was not given much credence and written off.

President Sadat of Egypt had picked Yom Kippur as the day of the attack, certain that Israel would not expect to be attacked on such a holy date. To further camouflage his intentions, he sent thousands of Egyptian troops to Makkah, to perform the Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage. They were given a big sendoff that was covered in the media.

On Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria launched a massive pincer attack from the north and south, led by their armored divisions. They caught the Israeli military on the back foot. It retreated, for the first time in its military history. The Israelis never thought the Arabs would be able to pull off a surprise attack, let alone successfully cross the Suez Canal.

The movie captures the drama of her war cabinet meetings in meticulous detail, bringing out the tensions and fears that surfaced during the meetings. In one scene, air raid sirens suddenly go off, since Tel Aviv is being hit by Egyptian cruise missiles. Golda says that she is not going to hide under the desk but others in the room are free to do so. No one does. Luckily, the cabinet room is not hit and she and her advisors survive.

Throughout the war, Golda is shown smoking very heavily and drinking coffee extensively. In between, she keeps going to the hospital to be treated for lymphoma. The way to the treatment room goes through a room where corpses are stored.

The dreadful news continues to come. The Egyptians have crossed the Sinai and the Syrians are beginning to march into the Golan Heights. The outlook worsens by the day. Golda fears that Israel, which was called the Zionist entity by Sada, would soon cease to exist.

That’s when General Ariel Sharon comes up with Plan B. This would be a flanking maneuver. His forces would cross the Red Sea and enter Egypt from the south, catching the Egyptian forces by surprise and threatening Cairo. The attack was successful but Henry Kissinger, the American Secretary of State, warned Israel not to do anything further since the Russians were likely to enter the war on the Arab side.

In addition, the Saudis who were ruled by King Faisal at the time, decided to quadruple the price of oil, adding an economic dimension to the war which was now aimed at the western powers friendly to Israel, notably the US.

A stalemate occurred on the battlefield and eventually the Arab armies were beaten back. However, Israel incurred significant losses. Nearly 3,000 soldiers were killed, 7,000 injured, and 300 were taken prisoner.

Golda felt that Israel had won the war but the Israeli public did not forgive her for not anticipating it and mobilizing reserves. They felt betrayed by a leader who had long ago vowed never to be an “innocent.” Her miscalculation contributed to thousands of Israeli casualties.

The Agranat Commission, headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was set up to examine what went wrong during the war. She testified before the Commission. After extensive in camera hearings, the Commission cleared her of misconduct. She felt vindicated.

However, when an interim report from the Commission was released on April 1, 1974, it unleashed a national furor. She resigned nine days later. The biopic does not show her resignation or what she said while resigning. She accepted responsibility for the failure, saying “It is on me.” As a recent commentator put it, very few in Israel would do that today: “Meir believed in the judicial system and that is one of the big differences between her and Netanyahu. She thought about the people. She didn’t think about herself. That’s why she took the blame. She left with a great shame because she cared about those soldiers. Benjamin Netanyahu cares about only one person: himself.”

She died in 1978, leaving behind a complex legacy that continues to keep historians busy. One of the sentences that alienated her from the left in Israel was the assertion that there are no Palestinians.

Helen Mirren gives an outstanding portrait of Golda. She underwent daily makeup sessions which were time consuming but very effective in making her resemble the character she is presenting. The same cannot be said of the actor chosen to portray Henry Kissinger. He is way too tall but he does accurately represent Kissinger’s conversations and actions, which were cross-checked with the former secretary of state, who is still going strong aged 100.

The movie does not present the Arab perspective on the war, which is understandable since it is about Golda. There is not much suspense in the movie since the narrative is well known to just about any serious student of history.

Despite these limitations, the biopic is worth watching for anyone with even a casual interest in current affairs. And it is a must-watch for serious students of warfare.


Comparing the 1973 and 1971 Wars

Israel is to be commended for not hiding its military failures. They continued to be studied and mined for lessons learned, with this article being a recent example. That’s quite a contrast from Pakistan’s military debacle in 1971, where the president did not resign even though he had surrendered half of the country to India and more than 90,000 of his personnel had been taken prisoner. General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan was forced out of office by a coup within the military.

The military appointed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as president, because his party had won a majority of the seats in West Pakistan, which was now all that remained of Pakistan. President Bhutto set up a commission of inquiry to examine the reasons why the war was lost. It was chaired by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Hamoodur Rahman.

The commission interviewed Gen Yahya and several senior military and civilian officials. It presented its main report to Bhutto in May 1972. He had it sealed because releasing it “would have demoralized the army.” He also felt the Commission had gone beyond its original scope and delved not only on military failures but also political failures.

Of course, the two failures were intertwined and who knew that better than Bhutto. It was he who had convinced Gen. Yahya, who was not only the Commander-in-Chief of the army but also the President and Chief Martial Law Administrator, to annul the general elections of 1970, which were regarded as the fairest in Pakistani history, to outlaw the Awami League, which had won an absolute majority of seats in the National Assembly, and to arrest its leaders. Those decisions had plunged Pakistan into a civil war that eventually and inevitably led to war with India and the loss of East Pakistan.

A supplementary report was issued by the commission in 1974 (ironically, the same year in which the Agranat Commission issued its report in Israel) containing the results of several hundred interviews with the released prisoners of war, including Lt-Gen AAK Niazi, who was the commander of the Eastern Garrison that surrendered on 16 December 1971. Unfortunately, the Government of Pakistan destroyed all copies of the report except for one which was kept under lock and key as a highly confidential document. When General Zia ul Haq deposed Bhutto in a coup in July 1977, and took over as Pakistan’s third military dictator, he said the commission’s report could not be found in the national archives. It had disappeared.

Then, on one day in the year 2000, parts of the report mysteriously surfaced in India. Among many other shocking revelations, it showed that deposed Gen Yahya had no qualms or guilt on what had transpired on his watch. He bluntly told the Hamoodur Rahman Commission that the war was lost because of “the treachery of the Indians.” The report also revealed that the Commission had asked that all senior military officers, including Yahya should be court martialed for betraying the trust the country had deposed in them.

Here's a quote: “There is consensus on the imperative need of bringing to book those senior Army Commanders who have brought disgrace and defeat to Pakistan by their subversion of the Constitution, usurpation of political power by criminal conspiracy, their professional incompetence, culpable negligence and willful neglect in the performance of their duties and physical and moral cowardice in abandoning the fight when they had the capability and resources to resist the enemy. Firm and proper action would not only satisfy the nation's demand for punishment where it is deserved, but would also ensure against any future recurrence of the kind of shameful conduct displayed during the 1971 war.”

It recommended that these top generals should be court-martialed on numerous counts: “General Yahya Khan, General Abdul Hamid Khan, Lt Gen SGMM Pirzada, Lt Gen Gul Hasan, Maj Gen Umar and Maj Gen Mitha.” It also recommended that “Lt Gen AAK Niazi, former Commander, Eastern Command, be court-martialed on 15 charges as set out in Chapter III of part V of the Supplementary Report regarding his willful neglect in the performance of his professional and military duties connected with the defence of East Pakistan and the shameful surrender of his forces to the Indians at a juncture when he still had the capability and resources to offer resistance.”

None of the commission’s recommendations were implemented. When these excerpts surfaced in India, Pakistan was being governed by its fourth military dictator, Gen. Musharraf. He was asked what he thought of the 1971 war. Dismissively, he responded, “Why should we worry about something that happened so long ago?”

It’s that aversion to critical analysis that prevents Pakistan from repeating its mistakes. In the spring of 1999, it was the same General Musharraf who had made yet another failed attempt to wrest Kashmir from India in 1999.

Dr. Faruqui is a history buff and the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan, Routledge Revivals, 2020. He tweets at @ahmadfaruqui