One of the last links to the years of Israel’s birth and the era of the country’s first peace treaty with an Arab nation died this week.
Yitzhak Navon, the fifth president of Israel, was a transitional figure, a bridge between the academic holders of the largely figurehead position who came before him (from Chaim Weizmann to Ephraim Katzir) and the prominent veterans of Israeli politics (including Chaim Herzog, Ezer Weizman and Shimon Peres) who succeeded him.
Mr. Navon, who died on Friday at 94 in his Jerusalem home, served one term as president, in 1978-83, earning a reputation as an honest broker in Israel’s partisan world. Like John Quincy Adams, the U.S. president who became the only commander-in-chief to serve in Congress after leaving the White House (nine terms in the House of Representatives), he was the only Israeli president to subsequently return to the Knesset and to the government coalition.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at Mr. Navon’s funeral Sunday on Mount Herzl, called him “one of the nation’s finest and among its greatest builders.” Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s current president, said, “Time after time you were there, at the pivotal junctures, always in a significant position.”
The first Israeli president born in Israel (Jerusalem), the first from a Sephardic background (Spanish-Turkish on his father’s side, Moroccan on his mother’s), he joined the right-wing Betar movement at 12 in pre-state Palestine, later aligned with the left-wing Labor party, and was fluent in many languages, including Ladino and Arabic.
As a fledgling politician, he served as an aide to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. As president, he toured Israel extensively. As a speaker of Arabic, he reportedly charmed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during a state visit to Cairo in 1980, a fruit of the Camp David peace process that had begun with Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in 1977. An unapologetic Zionist who criticized the revisionist historians who minimized the threats that Israel had faced in its formative years, he demanded that Israel establish a commission of inquiry into the massacre of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians, by Phalangist allies of the Israeli army, at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in southern Lebanon in 1982.
“I had a feeling of great responsibility,” he said in a 2009 interview with a Jerusalem newspaper.
Mr. Navon left behind a rich legacy of service that made his life a blessing to his nation.