JERUSALEM (Jan. 31)
President Yitzhak Navon announced today that he will not seek re-election when his five-year term expires next May and would retire to private life.
“I do not intend to ask the Knesset to elect me to another term and I do not plan or intend to enter political life,” Navon told a press conference at the Presidential residence this morning. He said he would devote his time to writing books and to social and educational work which he did not specify.
He said he had concluded, after long and difficult deliberations that he could not fulfill the office of President for another five years. The office, though prestigious, is largely ceremonial and it is widely believed that Navon could win re-election by the Knesset with ease had he chosen to run.
His decision not to has raised hopes in some Labor Party circles that Navon may eventually be persuaded to return to the political scene and possibly head that party’s ticket in new elections.
A ‘COOLING OFF’ PERIOD SEEN
Although Navon, a former Labor MK, said specifically that he would not enter politics after leaving office, many observers believe that he has set for himself a “cooling off” period after which he may reconsider political activity.
He has been an immensely popular Chief of State and Laborites do not overlook the fact that as the first President of Israel of Sephardic ancestry he would doubtlessly appeal to many Sephardic voters. Sephardim, or Oriental Jews, comprise over 60 percent of Israel’s population. They voted overwhelmingly for Premier Menachem Begin’s Likud party in the last two Knesset elections.
REACTIONS BY LABOR KNESSET MEMBERS
Labor Alignment Knesset members indicated today that the party could not afford to have a personality such as Navon “sitting on the fence” for an indefinite period. Raanan Na’im, a Labor hawk, said he was not put off by Navon’s reputation as a dove. “Compared to Yossi Sarid, he is a hawk of substance, ” Na’im said, referring to one of Labor’s most outspoken doves in the Knesset.
Sarid himself, though he shares many of Navon’s views, said today that it was too early to decide whether Navon is the right man to head the leading opposition party. The difficulties facing Labor are matters of substance, not personalities, Sarid said. If Navon replaced the party’s present leadership, Labor would still suffer from the same ailments, according to Sarid. He said that if and when the time came, he would judge Navon by his political line, not his personality.
Labor MK Haim Herzog reflected the general view when he said “A man of Navon’s calibre and prestige cannot stay out of politics.” Another Labor MK, Na’ava Arad declared that “Ever since Navon’s trip to Egypt I have been convinced that he is the man to bring peace to the Middle East.” She said she would support a Navon candidacy for chairmanship of the Labor Party, an office now held by Shimon Peres.
Labor MK Michael Bar Zohar believed that if Navon became party leader it would end the bitter power struggle between Peres and Labor’s No. 2 man, former Premier Yitzhak Rabin. Both Peres and Rabin are presently abroad.
Likud politicians expressed different views. MK Yosef Rom acknowledged that Navon was a “very good President” but did not believe he was capable of restoring the Labor Party to power.
A public opinion poll published here a week ago indicated that even with Navon at the head of the Labor list, Likud would win the next elections, though by a somewhat reduced margin. But another poll, published today by the Dahaf Research Institute indicated a Labor-Likud tie if Navon were to run for Prime Minister. The poll was released before Navon announced his intention to retire.
FUTURE ROLE NOT RULED OUT
Some political observers here expressed the opinion that Navon’s decision not to seek re-election to the Presidency means he will hold himself open for a political career sometime in the future.
Based on that surmise, powerful pressures are being exerted on Rabin, especially by his supporters in the kibbutz movement, to agree to a Navon-Peres-Rabin line-up in the next elections. Navon would be candidate for Premier, Peres for Deputy Premier and Foreign Minister and Rabin for Defense Minister.
Peres, whose standing in the public opinion polls has been dropping steadily in recent months, reportedly has indicated he would accept such a lineup. But there are opposing pressures on Rabin from his city-based supporters who fear that if he is maneuvered into the No. 3 spot, they would lose their seats in the Knesset and in the various party forums.
Some pundits are saying that if Rabin puts up a fight for party leadership he might be doing Navon a favor by allowing the popular President to demonstrate to the electorate that he is not just a figurehead but a tough politician. They believe such an image would help Navon in a national election campaign against Likud.
Meanwhile, speculation is growing over who will replace Navon in the presidency. The law requires the Knesset to elect a new President not more than 90 days and not less than 30 days before the incumbent’s term expires. The only candidate mentioned so far is Interior Minister Yosef Burg, a senior leader of the National Religious Party. Burg has indicated that he would accept the nomination, but only if he had bipartisan support from both Likud and Labor.