Joseph J. Sisco, a career diplomat of 25 years, was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 1974 to 1976. By Joseph J. Sisco
GOLDA MEIR was a leader of heroic proportions, of single-minded determination where her country was concerned. But for those of us who worked with her, she was also a woman of great warmth, informality and love for her fellow human beings.
Two personal recollections come to mind:
It was the last day of a trip to Israel in August 1971. My instructions were clear--a major effort was to be made to develop some formula as a basis to get negotiations between Egypt and Israel on an interim, piecemeal agreement, but I was not to press matters to a break if Golda Meir resisted our ideas. A further effort would be made, if need be, later in the year.
For three days there were detailed talks with Golda Meir. Several formulae were suggested, but none was found acceptable. As I drove to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv for a final concluding round, which was doomed to fail, I stopped at one of the many roadside stands selling richly colored late summer flowers.
I presented them to her before the final courtesy call. As Prime Minister Meir greeted me outside her office, she accepted the bouquet graciously, coyly, and with her usual warmth, said: "Oh, Mr. Sisco, I see now you are saying it with flowers. I love them."
"Yes, Madame Prime Minister," I responded. "As a good diplomat, I'm leaving no stone unturned." It was a poignant moment, even though it did not change the course of the negotiations.
And then there was another memorable occasion in the Prime Minister's Conference Room in Jerusalem. It was near the end of the successful shuttle negotiations which resulted in the first Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement in 1974.
My wife had asked me to buy a bar mitzvah gift in Jerusalem for Jonathan Cohen, whose father, Sheldon Cohen, was former director of Internal Revenue in the Kennedy Administration. The Embassy's administrative officer found in the Old City of Jerusalem a volume of various stories of the Old Testament written in headline and reportorial style in the form of a daily newspaper. I took it to the meeting and asked Mrs. Meir to autograph it for the young man, since she knew Sheldon Cohen. Dayan, Allon, Eban, Rabin and others signed it as well. Mrs. Meir was intrigued as she leafed through the various headlines. An amusing scene followed. Dayan chided Mrs. Meir, saying she really was not very knowledgeable of the Old Testament. She continued to read various daily newspaper stories to all of us, and the meeting was delayed for at least thirty minutes.
But this was not the end. At our final meeting several days later each of us was presented by Mrs. Meir with a volume. She said she wanted us to have our own special mementos of this occasion.
Thus Golda Meir's humanity--her warmth, her sense of humor--enriched some otherwise tough bargaining sessions. For she was also a woman of great strength and courage whose love for Israel was held above all else.
With her tenacious stands that grew out of her indomitable will for Israel to survive, she evoked anger and admiration in the Arab world. She distrusted the Arabs, but she did not hate. The word "rigid" was the term most frequently heard in Arab capitals. But, by the same token, Anwar Sadat frequently told us he preferred to negotiate "with the old lady" rather than a weak leader because "she can decide, she has guts, and she can face her people." (Sadat viewed Begin in a similar light).
If Golda Meir were alive today, she would be sharing with many Israelis the hope, the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding last week's Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai. She often said to me that she wanted peace for Israel, but she did not know whether it was achievable and maintainable. This question remains unanswered today.