BORN JERUSALEM APRIL 9, 1921. DIED JERUSALEM, NOVEMBER 7, 2015, AGED 94
ALTHOUGH HIS role was l a r g e l y c e r e monial, the popular and modest Yitzhak Navon, who served as Israel’s fifth president from 1978 to 1983, was dedicated to healing rifts between Arabs and Jews. He was particularly outspoken after the Sabra and Shatilla massacre, in September 1982, by the Christian Lebanese Phalange during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.
When more than 400,000 demonstrated in Tel Aviv demanding an investigation into the murders, Navon abandoned presidential diplomacy and insisted that unless Menachem Begin’s government took up the call he would resign. Begin duly appointed a judicial inquiry under Supreme Court president Yitzhak Kahan, which resulted in the removal of Ariel Sharon as Defence Minister, while clearing Israel from direct responsibility.
Generally praised as one of the most likeable people in Israeli politics, Navon was described by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “one of the nation’s finest and among its greatest builders”. The Israeli premier also paid tribute to his bridge building between Israel and its Arab neighbours, especially Egypt, facilitated by Navon’s fluency in Arabic and also Ladino.
Navon was also an author and playwright, whose work dealing with his own Sephardi heritage included the
Yitzhak Navon (
with ( acclaimed musical Sephardic Garden. This heritage helped unify the country at a time of intense polarisation between Sephardi immigrants and the European Ashkenazi elite, bedrock of the country’s founding fathers.
Itzhak Navon entered Israel’s foreign service just after the State was established in 1948. He served as chief of staff to Israel’s first prime minister, David Gurion, becoming one of Ben Gurion’s closest aides, and later to his
cellist Rostropovich, Lilian and Victor Hochauser and PM Edward Heath successor Moshe Sharett. He headed the Arab division at the Haganah’s information section during the War of Independence and held diplomatic posts in Argentina and Uruguay. He was first elected to the Knesset in 1965 into Ben Gurion’s Rafi Party, one of the precursors to the Labour Party, which included Shimon Peres, Moshe Dayan and Teddy Kollek.
Born into a leading Sephardi Jerusalem dynasty, his father’s family had arrived in Palestine from Constantinople in the 17th century. His mother was of Moroccan descent, of whom it was said that an ancestor was urged by the prophet Elijah in a dream to emigrate to Israel. He studied Arabic and noted in his autobiography, Itzhak Navon, All the Way, published in Hebrew this year, that at the time Jews and Arabs enjoyed a good relationship.
Navon attended the religious school Doresh Zion and graduated in Islamic culture, Arabic and Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University. In 1963 he married psychologist Ofira Erez, and in that same year, when Ben Gurion resigned the premiership, he was appointed head of the Education and Culture Ministry. Noting the high level of Jewish illiteracy, he drafted hundreds of women soldiers to teach adults in new settlements to read and write and made Arabic mandatory for Jewish public school students.
In 1978 he was elected the first Sephardi president. Two years later, after the Israel Egypt peace treaty he visited Egypt as the official guest of President Anwar Sadat. He left politics in 1992, one year before Ofira died.
Former Labour colleague Raphael Cohen-Almagor, who edited several books countering anti-Zionist literature in the late 1990s, invited Navon to write a chapter on his presidential role.
In it he describes how he had given much thought to how Muslims, Christians and Jews could live in friendship and understanding, even at a time of armed conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Visiting neighbourhoods and city suburbs, schools and remote villages, Navon was “captivated by the complex and amazing human mosaic of people”.
He wrote: “The president will not solve their problems but he listens, he is a conduit to exposure.” Yitzhak Navon is survived by his second wife, Miri Shafir Navon, his daughter, Naama, his son, Erez, and grandchildren.