By Mira Avrech
December 22, 1980 12:00 PM

When Israeli President Yitzhak Navon and his wife, Ofira, arrived in Cairo in October, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat welcomed them with a 21-gun salute. Never before had an Israeli president made a state visit to an Arab country. And with the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations at a standstill, the Navons were reassuring proof that all had not gone wrong.

The First Couple turned their visit into a diplomatic triumph—but at considerable personal cost. The day before they left Jerusalem, Ofira, 44, had completed a year of chemotherapy for breast cancer. Though frail and wearing a wig to hide her loss of hair, she insisted on accompanying her husband every step of the way, from the mandatory visit to the Great Sphinx to a climb through the ancient tombs of the Valley of the Kings. She explained, “I wanted to add a little stone of my own to the pyramid of peace.”

As a result of the Navons’ trip, Egypt and Israel agreed to exchange more students and increase commercial flights, among other significant if symbolic moves. Though Israeli law grants the president little real power, Yitzhak, 59, has been much more than a figurehead since the Knesset elected him to a five-year term in April 1978. (For 10 years he had been political secretary to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. Later, as a member of the Knesset, Navon chaired the influential foreign affairs and defense committee.) “When I became president, I wasn’t looking for trumpets, chauffeur-driven limousines and ceremonies,” says Navon. Instead, he explains, “I wanted to give the people a feeling of belonging. Israel is a nation that came from 102 countries, a nation which spoke 81 languages. Whether the people came from Poland or Yemen, this is their land.”

A recent poll shows that 93 percent of Navon’s compatriots think he is doing a good job. Before becoming president, he gave up active membership in the out-of-power Labor party, but he is still viewed by Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s Likud coalition as a meddler. He has been outspoken on such issues as the need for better living conditions for Israel’s poor. “Sometimes I say things I shouldn’t,” concedes Navon. For instance he complained to Jimmy Carter in March 1979 that Israel was paying a higher price for peace than Egypt.

Hoping to get greater concessions from a more flexible Israeli leadership, Sadat has publicly courted the Labor party, which is now favored to win the 1981 elections. Undoubtedly, Sadat hoped a successful Navon visit would add luster to Begin’s opposition. Navon, however, insists he has no intention of running for prime minister. Labor party leader Shimon Peres is one of his best friends and the likely candidate. Sadat nonetheless strongly endorsed Navon after their meeting. The Egyptian president declared: “Of all the world leaders I’ve met, there are two men of culture with whom I could spend days and nights: Helmut Schmidt of Germany and Israel’s Yitzhak Navon.”

Navon charmed Cairo with his speeches. At a state dinner, he cited seventh-century Arab poet Omar Ben Ma’adi Qarb and promised, “The people of Israel will nourish and protect the tender sapling of peace until it grows into a mighty tree with deep roots and spreading foliage.” All this was spoken in mellifluous Arabic. (Sadat’s wife, Jihan, remarked, “He sounds like my Arabic teacher in school.”)

Ofira is both vocal and controversial as First Lady. A former beauty contest winner and an ex-army sergeant, she holds a master’s degree in psychology. When Yitzhak became president, she had to give up her job as a psychologist treating deaf and crippled children. But Ofira still heads the foundation she started in 1978 to provide education for gifted and underprivileged students. She also makes a half-dozen speeches a month, usually writing them in bed at night, using a pen topped with a miniature flashlight so as not to disturb her sleeping husband.

Her most provocative crusade came in August 1979 when a breast tumor was discovered. (A year earlier a malignant growth had been removed from under her eye.) Before the operation Ofira refused to sign a statement allowing the doctors to perform a mastectomy if the biopsy proved positive. “There are so many types of malignancies,” she explains, “and there are other remedies for quite a few of them, if caught early. It takes four days to do a thorough biopsy. I felt the doctors had to give themselves and me the chance and not just cut haphazardly when I was asleep.” In her case, doctors prescribed radioactive needle implants at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston plus chemotherapy, which made her black hair fall out. “I don’t mind wearing a wig,” she says. “After all, what is hair in comparison to life?”

Her case prompted Israel’s Ministry of Health to rule that mastectomies cannot be performed without the written approval of two pathologists. As for herself, Ofira is resigned: “Ever since my father died, at 41, of cancer, when I was 8 years old, I’ve known that I would die of cancer too.” At 27, when she married Yitzhak, she warned him, “You will be a young widower.”

The Navons met through mutual friends in late 1961. They married in 1963, with every leading politician in Israel attending the ceremony. Many thought the marriage wouldn’t last because of differences in their heritage and temperaments. Yitzhak’s paternal ancestors came from Turkey; his maternal grandfather lived in Morocco until, in a dream, the Prophet Elijah told him to take his family to the Holy Land. Ofira’s parents were born in czarist Russia. Yet Ofira says, “Yitzhak and I have much in common.” Both are Israeli-born—she in Tel Aviv, he in Jerusalem. Both graduated from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but Ofira won a scholarship allowing her to study in the U.S. at the University of Georgia. She did advanced work in psychology at Columbia University. “We were both brought up on the love of country and the land,” Ofira says. “We went to the same youth movements, sang the same songs.”

Domestically they don’t always agree; their tastes in food are one example. “I’m not much of a cook,” she says, “but he likes my mother’s recipe for chicken soup.” Ofira dresses fashionably, in bright colors and bold designs, many by the Israeli Halston, Gideon Oberson. She shrugs off needling from her husband and the press that she is too flamboyant.

For eight years the couple tried to have children. Finally they adopted a baby girl, Naama, now 8. Soon after, Ofira became pregnant with son Erez (her maiden name), now 6. “When one has cancer,” she says, “the only thing that matters is getting up every morning and seeing one’s children.”

At home in the 10-room, marble-floored presidential mansion, Yitzhak and Ofira strive to give their children a normal family life. The children are allowed to bound into their father’s office at any moment. Visitors, no matter how distinguished, are introduced to the children simply as “Jimmy Carter” or “Henry Kissinger.” For security reasons, Ofira picks up the children after school in a chauffeured limousine. “Other kids just run to friends’ houses and chase up the stairs,” Ofira says. “Here every ‘spontaneous meeting’ calls for endless arrangements.”

Leading normal lives in the face of cancer is difficult, too, Ofira admits. Yitzhak himself won’t discuss her illness publicly. Meanwhile, the Navons do not stint on their social duties; Ofira takes days to plan obligatory dinner parties.

They would prefer to spend their time with old friends like Peres and Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek. Says Ofira, “When you look death in the eyes, you rediscover all your old values. Suddenly you know what is important and who really is your true friend.”