Yitzhak Navon - the people’s president

The fifth President of Israel, Yitzhak Navon personified a moral and modest leadership, which those currently at the helm of the state, unfortunately, lack.

Former president Yitzhak Navon (photo credit: Courtesy)
Former president Yitzhak Navon
(photo credit: Courtesy)
YITZHAK NAVON, the first president born in pre-state Israel, was descended from a long line of distinguished Spanish and Moroccan Jews. Born in Jerusalem in 1921, he died in Jerusalem, on November 7.
He opened up the President’s Residence to the people after his election by the Knesset in 1978. He was married to a young and vivacious wife Ofira, and their young children, Na’ama and Erez, grew up in the President’s Residence. In fact, some conservative old-timers found it difficult to get used to such a popular and open-minded first family.
He was a forceful proponent of a peaceful two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians and held that greater Jerusalem could be the capital of both Israel and a Palestinian state.
As president, Navon attempted to address three fundamental problems that still confront us today: the ethnic gap, the disadvantaged situation of Arab citizens and the continuous dragging out of the peace process.
I knew Navon for more than 60 years. We kept up a friendly relationship throughout.
His wit and unique sense of humor, as well as his down-to-earth manner, captured the hearts of everyone who was fortunate to know him personally. My first encounter with him was in 1951, when he was the powerful personal and political secretary of prime minister David Ben-Gurion.
It was Navon who decided whom Ben- Gurion would meet and in which public event he would take part.
As the secretary-general of the pioneering youth movement, I had regular contact with Navon since Ben-Gurion took a personal interest in the education and future of the country’s youth. When I began working at The Jerusalem Post in October 1958, Navon was a great help in getting important stories and “scoops.”
One of my vivid memories is the conversation I happened to overhear in March 1960 on the 37th floor of the Waldorf Astoria Tower in New York, as Ben-Gurion was preparing to meet German chancellor Konrad Adenauer.
Navon said “500,” to which Ben-Gurion responded, “That is too much, 250.”
Navon insisted on “500.” I later learned later from Navon, when he invited me to join Ben-Gurion’s entourage while Adenauer and Ben-Gurion were meeting, that they meant to ask Adenauer for continuous German economic assistance of $500 million over 10 years, when the German Reparations Agreement expired in 1962.
I kept that secret at the back of my mind, which helped me to interpret correctly Adenauer’s statement that Germany will “continue to help Israel’s development.”
When we stopped for several days in Oxford, before Ben-Gurion returned to Israel, Navon reciprocated my trust and allowed me to publish the scoop in The Post before any other newspaper.
We became even closer friends during Ben-Gurion’s 1962 visit to Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. It was to be Ben-Gurion’s last trip abroad as prime minister. Navon, who was a “bon vivant,” asked me every evening to wait for him before going out, or to leave him a message detailing which bar or disco I intended visiting. Navon even asked me to help him find a present for Ofira, before they became “closer friends.”
In June 1963, I attended the wedding of Yitzhak Navon and Ofira Erez at a modest ceremony in Jerusalem. That morning, Ben-Gurion resigned after being at the helm of the state of Israel for 15 years, since its inception. At the wedding, Ben-Gurion was a witness for his loyal, longtime aide.
Navon’s ascendancy to the presidency was not easy. During his first attempt, prime minister Golda Meir broke her promise to support his candidacy preferring Weizmann Institute scientist, Prof.
Ephraim Katzir. Navon, however, mobilized enough votes in the Knesset to be elected the country’s fifth president, following Katzir.
ONE OF the highlights of his presidency was Navon’s state visit to Egypt, as the personal guest of president Anwar Sadat.
There were unforgettable moments, when I witnessed Sadat, dressed in a long white jalabiya, receiving Navon in his home village Mit Abu al-Kum, behind the pyramids.
An outstanding linguist, Navon addressed the Egyptians in fluent Arabic.
Sadat later remarked, “Navon captured their hearts.”
When Shimon Peres lost the national elections narrowly in 1981 to Menachem Begin, I demanded in an article in The Post that Navon should step out of the glass house of the presidency and become Labor’s prime ministerial candidate.
Peres never forgave me for this article.
Navon remained president, subsequently returning to political life as deputy prime minister and education minister, lacking the drive for the No. 1 position.
Navon displayed exemplary moral and political courage during the 1982 Lebanon War. After Christian Phalange fighters brutally killed several hundred Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut with the nearby Israeli army failing to interfere, Navon took the unprecedented step of addressing a huge protest rally in Tel Aviv. Navon demanded that a judicial commission of inquiry be established to investigate the responsibility of prime minister Begin and defense minister Ariel Sharon for this massacre.
Navon’s demand was accepted and the Kahn Judicial Commission of Inquiry was established. Sharon was forced to give up the Defense Ministry.
I was privileged that Navon came to my 80th birthday party in Jerusalem, in January 2005 and gave a moving speech about my life. This year, Navon was already too weak to come to my 90th birthday celebration and asked his second wife, Miri, to convey his best wishes.
When we look back at how Navon, a young diplomat in Argentina and Uruguay, was introduced to Ben-Gurion by foreign minister Moshe Sharett because Ben-Gurion wanted to learn Spanish so that he could read “Don Quixote” in its original language, we realize the extent of Navon’s meteoric career. In addition to his impressive political achievements, Navon was a gifted writer and composer, who promoted Ladino culture. His play “Bustan Sephardi” (Spanish Orchard) is the longest-running show (28 years) at the Habima national theater.
When we think of leaders of Yitzhak Navon’s moral stature, Israel’s present political landscape seems barren. ■
Ari Rath was editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post from 1975 to 1989; he is the author of ‘Ari heißt Löwe: Erinnerungen’ (in German) or ‘Ari Means Lion: Memories’