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Behind the Headlines Israel’s New President

Yitzhak Navon, 57, who became Israel’s fifth president today, is considered a man who combines informality with high sophistication. He is a poet, a teacher, a politician–but also a man who knows how to enjoy life. He would never give up good food, good music or a car ride with his wife Ofira–a one time winner of a national beauty contest, now 42–and their two children, Nira, 5 and Erez, 4.

Navon was elected President by 86 of the 109 Knesseters present in the Knesset vote April 19. It was the largest majority ever in a presidential vote, despite the fact that Navon, a veteran Laborite and a known dove, was elected while the Likud government is in office. Twenty blank ballots were cast in the vote, presumably in protest by Liberal Party Knesseters who preferred their party leader Elimelech Rimalt. Rimalt had withdrawn his candidacy as soon as he learned that Navon had presented his.

OLD JERUSALEM FAMILY

Navon comes from a notable Jerusalem Sephardi family, which began when Rabbi Yona Ben Hannon Navon, a famous scholar, came to Jerusalem from Turkey in 1723. Born in Jerusalem, Navon studied Hebrew literature, education and Moslem culture at the Hebrew University. He is the author of a popular Hebrew play about the old Jerusalem Sephardi life called “The Sefardi Garden.”

For a while he served in the Irgun, but at the age of 18 he joined the Hagana, and during the War of Independence served as the director of its Arabic department.

He entered Israel’s Foreign Service after the war and was sent to Latin America in 1949, where he served as Second Secretary of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina. There he learned Yiddish in order to better communicate with the Jewish community.

Later he became political secretary to Israel’s first Foreign Minister, Moshe Sharett, and in 1952 he joined Premier David Ben Gurion’s staff and served as his political secretary and advisor until 1963. During Ben Gurion’s bitter conflict with the Mapai Party, Navon followed him and along with Shimon Peres, Moshe Dayan and Teddy Kollek formed the Rafi Party.

SOUGHT PRESIDENCY EARLIER

After Rafi merged with Mapai and Achdut Haavoda in 1969 to form the Labor Party, Navon became chairman of the Zionist General Council and then chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee.

Navon sought the presidency five years ago but was rejected by the Labor Party leadership in favor of Ephraim Katzir, a non-political scientist with a world wide reputation in the field of bio-chemistry. When Katzir announced he would not seek a second term, Navon announced his candidacy again, withdrawing from the campaign once when Premier Menachem Begin backed the candidacy of an obscure nuclear scientist, Dr. Yitzhak Shaveh. When Shaveh withdrew Navon re-entered the campaign.

It was during his work with Ben Gurion that Navon sent a telegram to Prof. Albert Einstein, at Princeton, N.J., on behalf of the Premier, asking him to become the President of Israel, which Einstein rejected. Later, after the death of President Yizhak Ben Zvi, Navon brought Zalman Shazar to Ben Gurion to receive his offer of the presidency.

When Navon lost the presidential race in 1973, Ben Gurion wrote him: “I believe that the Jewish people will yet see you as the President of the nation.”

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