Golda Meir, 80, who died yesterday in a Jerusalem hospital where she was being treated for a blood disease, possessed the stern, unyielding morality of an Old Testament judge. She expressed herself with simplicity and clarity and her political goals never were in doubt.

Above all, she was a Zionist. Virtually her entire life was devoted to the creation, preservation and betterment of the state of Israel. She pursued this passion with extraordinary physical and intellectual vigor culminating in her ascendancy to the premiership at the age of 71.

When Prime Minister Levi Eshkol died early in 1969, Mrs. Meir held no public office. She had retired ill and exhausted as secretary general of the dominant Labor Party six months earlier to read, relax and spend time with her children and grandchildren.

She had been foreign minister, minister of labor and chief of mission in the Soviet Union. She had been leader of the dominant political party in Israel. She had raised remarkably large sums of money to buy arms during the 1948 war of independence and she had negotiated twice secretly with King Abdullah of Jordan. Her days of service were fairly done.

But a successor had to be named almost immediately, and national unity had to be preserved. Blunt, stubborn, 71-year-old Golda Meir, with more than 40 years of Jewish politics behind her, was the clear choice.

Despite the many enemies made during her career, it was agreed that she had the stature to hold things together when Israel was under enormous pressure from the United States and the Soviet Union to make concessions to the Arab nations vanquished in the Six Day War.

It was also agreed that she was too old to have political ambitions and that she would undoubtedly step aside in the scheduled election seven months later and let Deputy Premier Yigal Allon and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan fight it out for the premiership.

Seven months later, however, Mrs. Meir's name topped the Labor Party's electoral list, the Labor Alignment won 50 per cent of the vote, more than enough in Israel's multiparty electoral system, and she was named to a full four-year term as prime minister of Israel. With respect to the battle between Allon and Dayan that had been forestalled, she said:

"I don't want to start the war of the Jews before the war with the Arabs has been finished."

There was an element of prophecy in that remark because just four years later on Yom Kippur and just before scheduled Israeli elections, the war with the Arabs broke out again with an Egyptian assault across the Suez Canal and a Syrian attack on the Golan Heights.

It was to be Israel's most costly war and as prime minister Mrs. Meir took a large part of the responsibility for the country's lack of preparedness. An inquiry after the war in effect exonerated her, but she wrote later in her autobiography that, as a result of the war, "I will never again be the person I was."

Shortly thereafter she retired from politics with this typically straightforward statement: "I am exhausted. I can no longer carry the burden. I have reached the end of the road."

The road traveled by Golda Meir was a rather extraordinary one. At its high point she was the preeminent political leader of the Jewish people.

Mrs. Meir seemed somewhat abashed by that role. She was charged with making policy at home and abroad. As foreign minister, under Premier David Ben Gurion, she advised, generally consented, and carried out policy, but Ben Gurion made his own foreign affairs decisions.

Yet there was no lack of self-assurance evident when on assuming the premiership she told the world -- and then repeated again and again -- that under no circumstances would Israel bargain away its security.

Israel has a secret weapon, she was fond of saying -- ein breirah , which means no choice. Some took this as an allusion to Israel's other secret weapon, the threat of introducing atomic weapons into the Middle East conflict. Neither the Arabs nor the leaders in Washington and Moscow doubted Mrs. Meir's resolution.

She was taken at her word in January 1969 when she told world Jewish leaders gathered in Jerusalem that:

"As long as we (Israel) live, our children and grandchildren, your children and grandchildren -- the state of Israel and Jewish life everywhere will be defended at all costs."

Many said she was rigid and unwilling to compromise, that she missed opportunities for peace because she treated Arab rhetoric as indistinguishable from Arab policy and United Nations and great-power guarantees as worthless.

Her argument was that there could be no substitute for a contractual peace between Israel and the Arab nations defeated in 1967 and secure and recognized boundaries for Israel. Until the Arab governments agreed to meet those conditions, it was her position that Israel had no choice but to continue occupying the territories -- the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Sinai, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights -- captured in 1967.

She was rigid and unyielding in those views. She believed that history was on her side, citing Arab belligerency toward Israel since its founding in 1948 and the collapse of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Egypt in 1967. Whether her inflexibility caused Israel to miss opportunities for peace or not is problematical.

Although she was unbending on the dual matters of binding peace and secure and recognized borders, she was not intransigent in the search for peaceful solutions to Middle Eastern problems.

Despite intense pressure on her coalition government from the hawkish Gahal Party, she publicly declared Israel's acceptance of the Security Council resolution of November 1967, which provided guidelines for a settlement, and she led Israel into the U.N. peace talks under Gunnar V. Jarring in August 1970.

During Mrs. Meir's premiership Israel's economy boomed and the pace at which consumerism was replacing Zionism quickened. Social problems resulting in part from a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots went unresolved and the boom brought with it soaring inflation.

Mrs. Meir was criticized sharply for her lack of attention to domestic problems.

She spoke out frequently of her willingness -- or the willingness of members of her government -- to meet Arab leaders at any time in any place, secretly or openly, in the interests of Middle Eastern peace. Such meetings in fact took place during her time in office. Whether or not they advanced the cause of peace is also problematical.

She had little or no opposition within the government on the national security issues about which she was so uncompromising. Her ministers also saw them as critical. On domestic matters she sought advice and often consensus. She did not, nor perhaps could she have, run roughshod over her cabinet in the style of Ben Gurion.

Her advisers, for the most part, were members of her cabinet. She relied on Israel Galili, minister without porfolio, most of all. Pinhas Sapir, the finance minister, was economic and political adviser and despite her opposition to Dayan as defense minister in the June 1967 government of national unity, she grew to rely on him in matters of security.

After a 12-hour day in her office, perhaps a speech at a school or kibbutz and the long ride home, she would meet with these men and others, generally in her kitchen. There she would talk, listen, drink strong Russian tea and smoked cigarettes endlessly. These sessions would frequently last into the early hours of the morning and Golda Meir's kitchen became an Israeli legend.

It may be that her greatest ally was the ever-present threat to Israel's security. She managed to hold together a fragile coalition government and a division-prone Labor Party. Supporters and detractors alike have said that without the bond of danger she could not have brought it off. But that is speculation. On the record, she did it.

She was born Golda Mabowitz on May 3, 1898, in Kiev, the Ukraine. Her father was a cabinetmaker and as a skilled craftsman allowed to live outside the Pale of Jewish settlement.

Anti-Semitism was rife in Kiev and the young Golda never forgot the fear of pogroms she knew as a child. She grew up with a fundamental distrust of Russians. In her autobiography, "My Life" (G.P. Putnam & Sons, N.Y.), she wrote:

"I must have been very young, maybe only three and a half or four. We lived then on the first floor of a small house in Kiev, and I can still recall distinctly hearing about a pogrom that was to descend on us.

"I didn't know then, of course, what a pogrom was, but I knew it had something to do with being Jewish and with the rabble that used to surge through town, brandishing knives and huge sticks, screaming 'Christ killers' as they looked for the Jews, and who were now going to do terrible things to me and my family.

"I can remember how I stood at the stairs that led to the second floor, where another Jewish family lived. holding hands with their little daughter and watching our father trying to barricade the entrance with boards of wood.

"That pogrom never materialized, but to this day I remember how scared I was and how angry that all my father could do to protect me was to nail a few planks together while we waited for the hooligans to come. And above all I was aware that this was happening to me because I was Jewish..."

When asked during her tenure as premier how she had avoided direct involvement in a pogrom as a child she answered simply: "Because my father and mother decided to get out." Her attitudes and feelings about anti-Semitism were shaped early and formed the background for her intense Zionism.

The Mabowitz family moved to Pinsk when she was 5. Shortly thereafter, her father emigrated to the United States. The years in Pinsk -- until the family was reunited in Milwaukee -- were spent in terror of Cossacks who leaped their horses over Jewish children for sport and policemen who beat Jewish socialists for their illegal activities. Her older sister Shana was involved in such activities.

By 1906, however, the family managed to emigrate and join Mr. Mabowitz, who was by then a union railroad worker. By the time the school term began in September young Golda had mastered enough English to keep up with her studies. After school, she worked in a dairy store run by her mother. Her sister Shana refused to work in that capitalist enterprise because it conflicted with her socialist principles.

Mrs. Meir did well in school, attended a Talmud Torah where she learned some Hebrew and became highly proficient in Yiddish, the language generally spoken in the Mabowitz home. Both of her parents became active in B'nai B'rith and her father in the American Jewish Congress.

Her own social service career began when she was 12. She organized children and parents to provide books for those who could not afford them.

During the next couple of years she decided she would like to be a teacher, a decision that upset her parents because Wisconsin had a law at the time that teachers could not be married. Mrs. Mabowitz, who thought that education was for men anyway, had visions of her daughter as an old maid.

This drove the young Golda out of the house at 15. She joined her sister in Denver where she met Morris Meyerson, the man she ultimately married on the condition that he go with her to Palestine.

Mrs. Meir said the decision to go was taken in 1915, two years before the Balfour Declaration established British acceptance of the principle of a Jewish national home in Palestine. In 1917, Ben Gurion and Itzhak Ben Zvi, who was to become Israel's second president, visited Milwaukee where she was attending a teacher's college.

Mrs. Meir described the impact on her of the Ben Gurion-Ben Zvi visit in a January 1971 interview with the London Observer.

"They came to America to urge young American Jews to go to Palestine and work on the collective farms -- a call back to the land in both senses -- and to build a labor-Jewish state.

"We heard their call of 'back to the soil' against the background of accounts pouring in about what millions of Jews were suffering in Europe from Austrian and Russian armies. I decided to go as soon as I could raise the money.

"Morris was dead against it, but he wanted to marry me. I told him that if he wanted me he had to come to Palestine. To be perfectly honest, if he could have had me without Palestine he would have been happier. But he couldn't, so he came."

They sailed in 1921 on a ship called the Pocohontas and their trouble-plagued journey took 52 days. They arrived July 14. Shortly thereafter, they settled in a malarial swamp known as Kibbutz Merhavia. Mrs. Meyerson, as she was known then, liked the kibbutz life, but her husband did not and they left after two years.

Over the next five years they lived in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and their two children were born. Their son, Menachem, is a cellist and their daughter, Sarah, lives on Kibbutz Revivim in the Negev.

In 1928, Mrs. Meir became secretary of the Women's Labor Council, which marked her entry into the public life of the Jewish community in Palestine.

In 1932, she was sent to the United States for two years to represent the council and in 1934 she went to work for the executive committee of Histadrut, the joint labor federation that is still a powerful force in Israel.

At different times she headed Histadrut's health plan and its trade union and labor relations council. During those years in Histadrut she was earning a reputation and forging friendships that led almost 40 years later to her selection as premier.

Her work dominated her life and during the early 1930s she was separated from her husband, who returned to the United States.

Late in 1940, she became chief of the political section of Histadrut and in that role partook of the split personality required of Jewish officials in those days. It was necessary to cooperate with the British Mandatory officials in their war effort against the Axis and to fight their policy of restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine.

In 1946, on the so-called Black Sabbath of June 27, when British authorities arrested all the Jewish leaders in Palestine at the time, Mrs. Meir was thrust into a position of leadership. The arrests resulted from Jewish protests over British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin's refusal to accept the recommendation of the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry to permit 100,000 Jews a month to enter Palestine.

"The British did not put me behind bars because I was a woman," Mrs. Meir told the Observer, adding that "I was very annoyed. Because I was the only prominent Jewish leader at large I was appointed acting head of the political department of the Jewish Agency -- the body which officially represented and administered the Jews under the British regime."

When Moshe Sharett, who had been head of the political department, was released from detention, he went to New York to lobby at the United Nations for the creation of Israel. Mrs. Meir remained political chief of the Jewish Agency.

Between November 1947 and May 14, 1948, the day the state of Israel was established, Mrs. Meir met twice with King Abdullah of Trans-Jordan in unsuccessful attempts to keep the Arab Legion -- the best-trained and most efficient Arab fighting force -- out of the battle that was by then considered inevitable when Israel became a reality.

The second meeting was held in Amman, just four days before the establishment of the state. Mrs. Meir was driven there at night dressed as an Arab woman. The meeting lasted an hour and the mission proved a failure. On May 14, Abdullah joined with the rest of the Arab world in making war on Israel.

In January 1948 Mrs. Meir took on another mission, and this one ended with success. She went to the United States to raise money for arms and returned with pledges of $50 million, more than twice as much as anyone had believed she would be able to get.

The war was fought and won and Mrs. Meir was sent to Moscow as Israel's first minister to the Soviet Union, an experience she described as "my greatest disillusionment," a reference to her youthful hopes for the success of socialism. "A classless socity?" she asked rhetorically in the Observer interview. "I can see them now, women digging ditches at 40 below zero, poorly dressed with rags on their feet, and other women stepping out of motor cars in fur coats and high heels."

In her autobiography Mrs. Meir described two encounters that shed some light on her role in Moscow.

"Ehrenburg was quite drunk," she wrote of her first and apparently only meeting with the Soviet Jewish novelist Ilya Ehrenburg. She said he was "very aggressive. He began speaking to me in Russian,' I said, 'Do you speak English?'

"He looked at me nastily and replied, 'I hate Russian-born Jews who speak English.'

"'And I am sorry for Jews who don't speak Hebrew or at least Yiddish!' I answered. Of course, lots of people milling around heard the exchange, and I don't think it increased anyone's respect for Mr. Ehrenburg."

Of the other meeting, she wrote:

"I had a much more interesting and rewarding encounter with another Soviet citizen at the reception given by Mr. (Vyascheslav M.) Molotov on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

"After I had shaken hands with Molotov, his wife, Ivy Molotov, came up to me. 'I am so pleased to meet you at last,' she said with real warmth and even excitement. Then she added, 'I speak Yiddish, you know.

"'Are you Jewish?' I asked in some surprise. 'Yes,' she said, answering me in Yiddish. 'Ich bin a yiddishe tochter.' ('I am a daughter of the Jewish people.)

"I never saw or heard from Mrs. Molotov again," Mrs. Meir continued. "Many years later in New York, Henry Shapiro, the veteran United Press correspondent in Moscow, told me that after her conversation with us, Ivy Molotov had been arrested."

Shortly after Mrs. Molotov's arrest, the Yiddish theater, newspaper and publishing house in Moscow were closed.

Mrs. Meir's presence in Moscow as representative of Israel had the immediate effect of revivifying the dormant Soviet Jewish community, but the long-term effect appears to have been the stimulation of ever-present Russian anti-Semitism.

Many considered her appearance at the Moscow synagogue on the first sabbath after her arrival a turning point in Soviet-Israeli relations. Thousands of Jews greeted her with a vast outpouring of emotion and national feeling toward the new Jewish state.

The Kremlin leadership apparently saw this as a threat to the monolithic character of the Soviet state. Systematic repression of Jewish institutions followed.

Mrs. Meir went home in 1949 to become minister of labor in Israel's first cabinet under Prime Minister Ben Gurion. She served in that post for seven years and later called it the happiest period of her life.

Those were years of mass immigration.One of Mrs. Meir's main concerns was to move refugees as quickly as possible from the ma'abarot , or refugee camps, to permanent housing. Her performance was widely acknowledged as highly successful.

In 1956, Sharett broke with Ben Gurion and resigned as foreign minister. Mrs. Meir was named as his replacement. It fell to her to defend Israel's role in the Sinai campaign of 1956. She was instrumental in working out the compromise solution for Israeli with-drawal, which for a time opened the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. She was also called upon in 1960 to defend the abduction of Adolf Eichmann from Argentina before the U.N. Security Council.

"Is this a subject for discussion in the Security Council?" she asked. "The council is a body which deals with threats to peace. Will Eichmann's trial by the people to whose destruction he had dedicated all his energies constitute a threat to peace, even if the method of his apprehension in some way contravened Argentine laws? Or didn't the threat to peace lie in the fact that Eichmann enjoyed freedom..."

During her tenure as foreign minister Mrs. Meir favored reliance on the United States as a potential arms supplier. Others wanted to rely on France. Israel bought arms from both, but larger quantities from France until President Charles de Gaulle cut off sales after the Six Day War. The United States then became Israel's major supplier of weapons.

Mrs. Meir was also active as foreign minister in building up good relations between Israel and the emerging nations of black Africa. Those relations deteriorated badly, however, as a result of Soviet and Chinese inroads and the threat that Arab oil-producing countries would cut off supplies.

In 1965, she broke with Ben Gurion on a number of political issues and supported Levi Eshkol and those who remained in the Labor Party when Ben Gurion formed a splinter party called Rafi. She resigned from the government in exhaustion even though Labor won handily in the elections and Rafi did poorly.

Although she had hoped to retire, she was prevailed upon to become secretary general of the Labor Party, a post she had given up just six months before being called to the premiership by President Zalman Shazar.

After her second resignation she wrote her autobiography, continued to play a role in the convoluted politics of Israel's Labor Party, and spent more time with her daughter on Kibbutz Revivim in the Negev Desert.

But neither her resignation from office nor the greater amount of time she spent with her family in the Negev removed her from public view. Early in 1976 she joined a nine-member inner ruling group of the Labor Party. She spoke frequently and forcefully on public affairs, although she no longer had a seat in the Knesset. A frequent target was Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who took office in June 1977.

Less than six months later, she rushed home from the United States, where she had gone to attend the Broadway opening of "Golda," a musical based on he autobiography, for the historic visit to Jersualem of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt.

Sadat had been Mrs. Meir's opponent in the Yom Kippur War. But the two embraced when they met in Jerusalem and their greetings produced some of the warmest moments of the occasion.

"I have waited a long time for this," Sadat said.

"But you didn't come," Mrs. Meir replied.

"Now the time has come," said Sadat.

In a brief address, Mrs. Meir gently chided the Egyptian leader, saying, "You always called me an old lady, didn't you?

Sadat laughed. "I am responsible. I did call her that, frequently," he said.

At the close of her remarks, Mrs. Meir said, "And, Mr. President, as a grandmother to a grandfather, may I give you a little present for your granddaughter and thank you for the present you have given me?"

Sadat had given her a cigarette box. She gave the Egyptian leader a doll.

Mrs. Meir lived to see the Nobel Peace Prize conferred on Sadat and Begin for their efforts to negotiate a peace treaty between their two countries. At the time of her death, Begin was in Oslo, Norway, for the formal presentation.

In addition to her children, Mrs. Meir is survived by a sister, Clara Stern, of Bridgeport, Conn. Her husband, from whom she was separated in 1933, died in 1951.