Golda portrays a leader at her best &mdash and worst

If Theodor Herzl and David Ben-Gurion were the fathers of the modern state of Israel, Golda Meir undoubtedly was its mother. Moreover, she was the harbinger of an elite group of late 20th century female heads of state, including Indira Ghandi, Margaret Thatcher and Corazon Aquino. She also is the comparison of choice for pundits charting the rise of Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

But Meir’s role in the struggle for women’s rights was a minor cause during her productive lifetime.

Her greatest cause was the establishment, defense and development of the state of Israel. Fueled by the Zionist dream, the young Meir was reared in a milieu of socialist thinking, which nurtured fierce loyalty, tireless energy and a personality so inflexible and caustic that she became known as “Golda the Intransigent.” In the words of one nemesis, Meir was guilty of “complete intolerance, complete disdain for any other opinion, a kind of primitiveness which was her strength.”

A close examination of Meir’s character and the force of her personality is the major contribution of “Golda” by Elinor Burkett, who has written a very readable and entertaining biography. It focuses on the remarkable achievements and idiosyncratic style of the redoubtable woman who was one of Israel’s founding generation, its first foreign minister and, from 1969 to 1974, the nation’s (and, in fact, the Western world’s) first female prime minister.

Meir represented Israel’s dogged spirit as she conveyed the Zionist agenda to Jewish communities throughout the diaspora. In the United States in particular, she galvanized American Jewry with her barnstorming fundraising tours, telling Israel’s story to huge audiences.

The adulation made her a diplomatic rock star. She was Israel’s most famous celebrity, and every American president, among other world leaders, paid her homage. But despite having a best-selling autobiography and even a Broadway play about her life, she was self-effacing and personally modest. The acclaim meant nothing to her unless it translated into an advantage for her beloved Israel. Her story is that of a person who subordinated her own life to serve a higher purpose.

Burkett covers the requisite ground, including Meir’s early years in Russia and her family’s relocation to Milwaukee; her precocious infatuation with Zionism and her first visit to pre-state Israel; her unfulfilling social life; her political feuds with Israeli powerhouses Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban and Menachem Begin; her leadership in developing a socialist infrastructure; her alarm and disillusionment following the Yom Kippur War; and her tenancy late in her life in the prime minister’s house.

The unique part of Burkett’s narrative focuses on Meir’s political and diplomatic approach — to get things done, she combined one part fierce commitment to Zionist destiny, one part power politics and two parts grandmotherly charm. This was illustrated during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when she was negotiating with the Egypt’s Anwar Sadat while cajoling U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to send the Israeli Air Force more F-16s. In later years Kissinger admitted that Meir handled him superbly, playing the “benevolent aunt toward an especially favored nephew.”

She was perhaps Israel’s most effective representative in the international arena (her forays to the United Nations were major news events), even though Eban was closer to the stereotype of the sophisticated and articulate diplomat. One person called her “such an Amazon, though without the swords or spears.”

I saw Meir when she appeared in San Francisco in 1975. I remember that when she finished her speech the audience started chanting, “Golda! Golda! Golda!” Rabbi Brian Lurie was ready to escort the former prime minister from the bimah, but she was in no hurry to leave. She remained there soaking up the adulation of the crowd.

In December 1978 her old adversaries, Begin and Sadat, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But as Burkett tells us, “Less than 12 hours before they were to receive perhaps the highest honor on the planet, Golda died, grabbing the headlines from them both.”

“Golda” by Elinor Burkett (483 pages, HarperCollins, $27.95)