Former president Yitzhak Navon.
(photo credit: KNESSET)
People who knew him say that the late president Yitzhak Navon brought together two different, even contradictory, traits. On the one hand, Navon, who passed away Saturday at the age of 94, was a man of the people.
Fluent in Arabic and a descendant of Sephardi Jews, Navon had good rapport with all walks of Israeli society.
He was in his element in the capital’s Mahaneh Yehuda market, where he enjoyed taking walks. He was equally comfortable in Druse and Arab villages conversing in Arabic.
He connected to both secular and religious (he was a descendant of Rabbi Haim Atar, the author of Or Ha’chaim, a kabbala inspired exegesis of the Pentateuch). His Sephardi background and knowledge of Ladino endeared him to Jews who hailed from Muslim countries, while his knowledge of Yiddish and close ties with the historic Labor Party, known as Mapai, meant that he had inroads to the Ashkenazi elites.
Along with his accessibility to the diverse groups that make up Israeli society, Navon had an aristocratic bearing.
In part this was due to his erudition. But his noble character also contributed to the correct impression that Navon was worthy of respect.
Navon had a long career as a public servant. He was an intelligence agent with Shai, the precursor to the Shin Bet; he served in the Israeli embassies in Argentina and Uruguay; he was the personal secretary of Moshe Sharett, the nation’s first foreign minister; and was a long-time political adviser to David Ben-Gurion. He first entered the Knesset on the Rafi list, a party created by Ben-Gurion after he broke away from Labor. On April 19, 1978, 10 days after his 57th birthday, Navon was elected as Israel’s fifth president.
Though he respected the ceremonial nature of the presidency and largely refrained from taking a controversial political stand on issues, Navon was outspoken on the need to set up a judicial commission of inquiry into the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in September 1982, despite strong opposition to such a move within the Likud and Tehiya parties. In part thanks to his support, the Kahan Commission was appointed, which recommended the dismissal of then-defense minister Ariel Sharon. The cabinet accepted the recommendation, leading to Sharon’s resignation in 1983.
In January 1983, toward the end of his presidential stint, Navon, considered a political dove, indicated that Israel might consider negotiating with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) if it changed the article in its covenant which calls for the destruction of the Jewish state. In doing so, he foresaw the peace process under the auspices of the Oslo Accords that were launched a decade later.
Though it was possible at the time to serve two terms as president, Navon declined to run for reelection and chose instead to return to politics as a member of Labor. Because of his popularity, Navon was a serious contender to head the Labor party in the 1984 elections. However, he lacked the political will to compete against either Shimon Peres or Yitzhak Rabin.
As deputy prime minister, Navon strongly opposed the May 1985 “Jibril deal” in which 1,150 convicted Palestinian terrorists were released from prison in exchange for three Israeli soldiers held in captivity. Navon linked the deal to a spike in kidnappings of Israelis and hijackings of planes.
In 1986 as education minister, Navon took somewhat of an equivocal position on censorship. Navon initially supported censoring a play called The Explosion on Ahlan Street which portrayed a mixed marriage between a Jew and an Arab in a favorable light, then backtracked. He also supported censoring films, citing studies that claim to show a direct connection between depictions of crime and violence on screen and higher levels of violence on the streets.
Ahead of the 1992 elections, which Labor won, Navon left politics for good. He served as chairman of the National Authority for Ladino. He also wrote a number of plays, including Bustan Sephardi, which romanticizes the life of the Sephardi community in Jerusalem in the 1930s.
In 1996, Navon headed a commission that looked into the reasons behind the disposal of thousands of units of blood donated by Ethiopian immigrants. The commission found the blood was not discarded because of racism. Rather, it was the result of a failure on the part of blood services administrators to update a directive from 1984, which related to the fear of spreading Hepatitis B, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Leading figures who eulogized him rightly praised Navon as a builder of the nation, a diplomat, a man of culture and wisdom, a politician and a humanist. May his memory be a blessing.