Yitzhak Navon, Israel’s fifth president, diplomat, key adviser to David Ben-Gurion and respected Labor politician, died Friday night at the age of 94.
Navon, the scion of a long line of renowned Sephardi rabbis, was born on April 9, 1921. He was the first Israeli president to be born in Jerusalem, where his family had lived for more than 300 years, tracing its ancestry back to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.
Fluent in Arabic, Navon served as the head of the Arab section of the Haganah, the forerunner to the IDF, in the years running up to the establishment of the state. He then served as an Israeli diplomat in Latin America, before becoming personal secretary to Israel’s first foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, from 1950-1952. Navon then took a position as a political adviser to David Ben-Gurion, a post he held for more than a decade, becoming one of the first prime minister’s most trust aides.
Entering public politics in 1965, he became a member of the Knesset for Ben-Gurion’s Rafi party, which was later amalgamated into Labor. He remained an MK for 13 years, during which time he served as deputy Knesset speaker and head of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He stepped down in 1978, when he was elected president at the age of 57.
It was during his presidency that Israel signed its landmark peace agreement with Egypt, and Navon visited Cairo in 1980, at the invitation of then-president Anwar Sadat.
Navon declined requests to stand again at the end of his term as president, and returned to the Knesset for Labor, becoming deputy prime minister and education minister in a national unity government. He was one of the architects of events to mark the 500th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and signed the first cultural agreement between Israel and Spain.
His son Erez Navon said his father was “a person who loved people. He cared about what is being done here, what is happening here, and that is what characterized him more than anything.”
Navon told Ynet news he was proud “to be the son of a man who gave his all to our beloved country.”
The former president was a respected writer, penning two musicals based on Sephardic folklore, Sephardic Romancero and Bustan Sephardi, both of which were performed at Israel’s national Habimah theater. He also wrote “The Six Days and the Seven Gates,” a fantastical account of the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War, in which the gates of the city vie for the privilege of having Israeli soldiers enter through it as they captured the Western Wall.
Navon’s wife, Miri Shafir, said he had “lived a good life and passed away in his home surrounded by love and respect. He had time to say goodbye to everyone…with the same quiet, dignity and benevolence with which he carried himself his entire life.”
Navon’s first wife, Ofira, passed away in 1993. He is survived by son Erez and daughter Na’ama. The Navon family said that details of the funeral would be announced after Shabbat.