Forty years ago today, on 25 September 1969, RN welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir to the White House.
It was the beginning of what became a warm and close relationship. A relationship that would be tested, refined, and perfected during the Yom Kippur War in 1973; and that would culminate in RN’s heartfelt toast to the now-former-PM at a dinner in the Knesset in 1974.
RN’s Welcoming Remarks on the South Lawn of the White House
Madam Prime Minister and our guests here at the White House today:
It is a very great privilege for me, speaking in behalf of the American people, to welcome you, Madam Prime Minister, in a very personal sense, because you were raised in this country. You have been to this country many times, but we are particularly proud that for the first time we welcome you as the Prime Minister of Israel.
Speaking to you in that capacity, as the head of government of a very courageous people, a people who are determined to maintain their independence, who also are determined to achieve a lasting peace in the area in which they live, I look forward to the talks we shall have individually, and also with other members of your party.
It would be less than candid for me not to say that the problems of the Mideast are terribly complex and not susceptible to solution in one meeting, or two or three, or even more, at the level at which we will be talking.
But it is also proper to say that the Mideast and peace in the Mideast is of interest not only to your nation and your neighbors but to the whole world, because of what could happen in the event that war were to break out there, the repercussions that that could have all over the world.
We know that you and your people want peace. We know that your neighbors want peace. Certainly the majority of the people in the whole area want peace. The question is how to achieve it. On this we shall have discussions that I hope will be helpful; the real peace, the peace that is not simply one of words but one in which both parties will have a vested interest in maintaining.
I would say finally, Madam Prime Minister, that a very famous British Prime Minister once said: “One should always talk as much as possible to women, because this is the best school.”
I can assure you that I recognize the tremendous complexity of the problem we will be discussing. I recognize that it is necessary to get the very best answers that we can to find a solution to these problems, and I realize that in talking to you, not just because you are Prime Minister but because you are one of the outstanding women in political leadership in the world, that in talking to you, I will be truly going to the best school today and tomorrow.
A timely visit: the week before she arrived at the White House, Mrs. Meir was on the cover of Time magazine.
RN described the visit in RN:
On September 25, 1969, Golda Meir came to Washington for a state visit. In Israeli terms she was a “hawk,” and a hard-liner opposed to surrendering even an inch of the occupied territory Israel had won in the 1967 war. Mrs. Meir conveyed simultaneously the qualities of extreme toughness and extreme warmth; when the survival of her country was involved, the toughness was predominant. She requested twenty-five Phantom jets and eighty Skyhawk fighters and complained about the delays in delivery of planes that had already been approved. She also asked for low-interest loans of $200 million a year for periods up to five years. I reassured her that our commitments would be met.
At a state dinner in her honor she expressed concern regarding our moves toward détente with the Soviets. I told her that we had no illusions about their motives. I said, ‘Our Golden Rule as far as international diplomacy is concerned is: “Do unto others as they do unto you.’”
“Plus ten percent,” Kissinger quickly added.
Mrs. Meir smiled. “As long as you approach things that way, we have no fears,” she said.
During my interviews with him in 1983, I asked RN if he remembered that first meeting with Mrs. Meir:
Oh, I recall it very vividly. She came to the Oval Office–I believe it was in 1969. And what impressed me about Golda Meir was the contrast between her and Indira Gandhi. The contrast was really quite vivid.
Indira Gandhi was a very intelligent woman and a very strong leader, but she was one who acted like a man, with the ruthlessness of a man, but wanted always to be treated like a woman.
That wasn’t the way Golda Meir was. Golda Meir acted like a man and wanted to be treated like a man. I remember so well when we sat down in the chairs in the Oval Office, and the photographers came in, and they were running their tape and so forth, and we were shaking hands, and she was smiling, and making the right friendly comments–“How are you? How’s the family?” and the rest.
Photographers left the room. She crossed her leg, lit a cigarette, and said, “Now, Mr. President, what are you going to do about those planes that we want and we need very much?”
And from that time on, we had a very good relationship. It wasn’t that she was not one who was very feminine, because she could be. She used to wear her hair in a bun. She told my daughter Julie the reason she did it was that her husband liked it that way, even though that wasn’t the fashion, at least in–in certain places.
She was very feminine in another way. She never forgave. She never forgave those that had opposed her, she she thought it was unjustified.
She never forgave Ben-Gurion because he had opposed her when she was on her way up. She never forgave Pompidou, because Pompidou had said some disrespectful things about Israel and her–she thought so–a couple of years previously. But there is no question that she was a very strong, intelligent l–leader in her own right.
Cartoonist Noah Bee noted Mrs. Meir’s first White House visit and referred to her interest in direct negotiations between parties in the Middle East.
That night, the President and Mrs. Nixon were the hosts at a State Dinner.
The Prime Minister’s Toast to the President was particularly warm:
When I say this was a great day for me, Mr. President, I shall remember it always, because you made it possible for me to speak to you, to bring before you all our problems, all our worries, all our hopes and aspirations; and if you will forgive me, I did not have a feeling for one single moment that I, representing little, tiny Israel, was speaking to the President of the great United States.
I felt I was speaking to a friend who not only listens —in Hebrew we have two words, a word that means only listening, and a word that means that it really is absorbed–and I have a feeling that you were not merely kind to listen to me, but you shared what I was saying, what our worries are.
We discussed the problems of Israel as though they were our common problems. This means a lot. Israel has known in its short number of years too many hours when we felt we were all alone. And we made it.
Mr. President, thank you, not only for wonderful hospitality, not only for this great day and every moment that I had this day, but thank you for enabling me to go home and tell my people that we have a friend, a great friend and a dear friend. It will help. It will help us overcome many difficulties.
When the great day comes when this dream comes true, you will have had a great share in it.
The next afternoon, in the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing of the White House, RN bid farewell to his new friend. With a characteristic flourish, he wished her well for the rest of her visit to America — particularly to Milwaukee, where her family had settled after they left her birthplace of Kiev, Russia.
THE PRESIDENT. I can only wish you well on the balance of your trip. I know you will receive a wonderful welcome every place you go, and particularly in Milwaukee. Milwaukee lost the Braves, but they got you back.
THE PRIME MINISTER. Thank you very much, Mr. President.
THE PRESIDENT. As a matter of fact, the Braves could use you as a pinch-hitter right now in order to win.
THE PRIME MINISTER. They lost that opportunity.
THE PRESIDENT. They are in Atlanta. You know that.
In the Nixon Library’s World Leaders Gallery, Ivan Schwartz’s life size statutes of Golda Meir and Anwar Sadat stand side by side.’
In Leaders (1982), RN devoted several pages to Golda Meir.
We both took office in 1969. We both resigned in 1974. She became Prime Minister just two months after my own inauguration, and she served until two months before my resignation. In effect, she was “my” Israeli Prime Minister; I was “her American President.
Georges Pompidou once described Golda Meir to me as “une femme formidable.” She was that and more. She was one of the most powerful personalities, man or woman, that I have ever met in thirty-five years of public and private travel at home and abroad. If David Ben-Gurion was an elemental force of history, Golda Meir was an elemental force of nature.
Some leaders are masters of intrigue, spinning webs of deception, planting suggestions that the unwary will take as promises, wheeling and dealing, constantly, even compulsively, plotting and maneuvering. For Lyndon Johnson this was second nature. FDR was a master of it. For many, scheming is the essence of statecraft, the most effective and sometimes the only way of navigating the threatening shoals of competing interests and getting things done. Not for Golda Meir. She was absolutely straightforward. There was nothing devious about her. The corollary is that she was implacably determined. There was never any question about where Golda Meir stood, or what she wanted, or why. She could be either the irresistible fore or the immovable object, as the situation required. But as an object she was immovable; as a force she was irresistible.