Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in "Golda." (Sean Gleason/Courtesy of Bleecker Street/Shiv Hans Pictures)

Did Golda Meir let the Yom Kippur War happen? ‘Golda’ biopic aims to rehabilitate her image.

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Did Golda Meir let the Yom Kippur War happen? ‘Golda’ biopic aims to rehabilitate her image.

Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in "Golda." (Sean Gleason/Courtesy of Bleecker Street/Shiv Hans Pictures)

(JTA) — Golda Meir, the first and so far only woman prime minister of Israel, is a figure as shrouded in mythology as she is veiled by plumes of cigarette smoke in “Golda,” a new political drama starring Helen Mirren.

Meir has been called Israel’s “Iron Lady,” alternately lionized as a founder of the state, scorned for her dismissive statements about Palestinians and, most notoriously, held responsible for Israel being caught by surprise at the outbreak of the bloody Yom Kippur War of 1973. The film recreates Meir’s experience during the 19 days of that war, which would indelibly mark both her legacy and the Israeli consciousness. Directed by Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv, who won an Oscar for his 2018 short film “Skin,” “Golda” opens in theaters across the United States on Friday.

Generations of Israelis, including many who fought in 1973, have blamed Meir for a traumatizing war. But Nattiv offers a different portrait, building on recently declassified wartime documents that reveal how she was disastrously misinformed by her complacent military commanders. He presents Meir as a steely, ruthless yet vulnerable woman, tortured by guilt and motivated by the belief that she was defending her country from extinction.

“She was the scapegoat of the war,” Nattiv told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “The notion was that she was the only person responsible for this debacle, this failure, and it wasn’t true.”

Nattiv himself was 4 months old when war broke out on Oct. 6, 1973 — Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar — and his mother took him to a bomb shelter while his father headed to the front.

In a colossal intelligence failure, Israel was surprised by a two-front attack from Egypt and Syria, which sought to regain territories they lost in 1967. Many Israelis were overconfident after their young country’s swift victory over three Arab armies in the 1967 Six-Day​​ War. But in the first 24 hours of the Yom Kippur War, thinly manned Israeli positions were overwhelmed along the Suez Canal in the southwest and the Golan Heights in the northeast.

Eventually, Israel won a costly victory: 2,656 Israeli soldiers were killed and 12,000 injured, a heavy toll for a small state. The Arab forces saw 8,258 killed and nearly 20,000 wounded. The national trauma of 1973 turned the public against Meir, previously admired for her long political career that included being a founder of Israel’s Labor Party and raising $50 million from Jewish Americans for the establishment of an Israeli state.

“Golda” frames Meir’s experiences as flashbacks during her testimony to the Agranat Commission of Inquiry, which investigated Israel’s military failings leading up to the war. Although the commission cleared her of wrongdoing, she decided to resign. Four years later, after secretly battling lymphoma for 15 years, Meir died at 80 years old.

Nattiv sought to humanize her with a focus on the isolated, agonizing days of war taking place in the twilight of her life, spent in between war rooms and hospital beds.

“I wanted to show the most pivotal moment in her life and in this country’s life, this junction that shaped her whole image, while she was sick and had to make difficult decisions,” said Nattiv. “I wanted to tell her story through loneliness.”

Nattiv also shows Meir in the place where her political edge converged with a tender instinct: her intimate home kitchen. Like the real Meir, Mirren’s version cooks for the select group of advisors who enter her home. The prime minister was known for serving cheesecake and apple strudel to her powerful guests on Shabbat evenings, accompanied by consultations and debates around the table. The practice became known as “Golda’s Little Kitchen” or her “Kitchen Cabinet.”

Among Meir’s kitchen guests was then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, played in the film by Liev Schreiber. Nattiv recreates the tense conversations in which Meir pressured Kissinger to send aid for the Israeli army, whose reserve ammunition was rapidly exhausted in the early shock of the war. The United States, at first hesitant to lose its own access to oil from Arab countries, agreed to send weapons and aircraft to Israel when the Soviet Union began resupplying Egypt and Syria, drawing the Yom Kippur War into the Cold War.

Helen Mirren as Golda Meir and Liev Schreiber as Henry Kissinger in “Golda.” (Sean Gleason/Courtesy of Bleecker Street/Shiv Hans Pictures)

In the film, Kissinger tells Meir that he is an American first, secretary of state second, and only third a Jew. Meir replies, “You forget in Israel we read from right to left.”

This quote was taken directly from history: The 100-year-old former diplomat has long publicly recounted Meir delivering the line. (He has not publicly said whether the coercion came with a bowl of borscht and a dollop of Holocaust guilt, as shown in the film.)

While Meir was tough with her allies and brutal to her adversaries, “Golda” portrays the prime minister as a victim of her own advisors in the film. She is shown taking the fall for the egregious errors of her military leaders — in particular Chief of Military Intelligence Eli Zeira and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan — to protect the public’s faith in its army.

Documents declassified in 2020 showed that Zeira ignored intelligence warnings that Cairo and Damascus were poised to attack, withholding the communications from the government in his belief that the chance of imminent war was “lower than low.” Meanwhile, Dayan objected to fully mobilizing troops in the hours before the war, according to his testimony to the Agranat Commission, which was declassified in 2008.

“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.

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. In back-channel communications with Kissinger, Meir vowed to prevent any peace initiative that required recognizing Egyptian sovereignty over the Sinai, according to Israeli historian Yigal Kipnis, author of the 2012 book “1973: The Road to War.”

As a result of the bitter war, Israel and Egypt signed a disengagement agreement in January 1974. In 1979, following U.S.-brokered negotiations at Camp David, Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed a peace treaty. Egypt became the first Arab state to officially recognize Israel, and Israel withdrew fully from the Sinai Peninsula.

Nattiv credits the ensuing peace to Meir, with a title card at the end of the film reading, “Her legacy of saving her country from annihilation leading to peace serves as her memorial.”

But critics such as  Kipnis have argued that peace might have been achieved sooner with negotiations before the conflict that, he has suggested, could be called the “unnecessary war.”

Meir will always be a controversial figure in Israel, said Nattiv. Whatever judgment the audience makes of her, he believes it is important for Israeli audiences to absorb how leadership blinded by hubris and power can poison a society. He referenced the current political crisis in Israel, in which Prime Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to weaken the Israeli Supreme Court have triggered mass protests that have been ongoing since January.

“It’s kind of crazy that today we see the Yom Kippur of democracy in Israel,” said Nattiv. “The blindness again, the same debacle that happened in 1973 is returning now.”

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