Israeli President retiring from politics. . . at least for awhile

For weeks the Israeli political community - and the United States government - have been waiting eagerly for two events. One of them has finally happened.

Israeli President Yitzhak Navon has announced he will not seek a second term of office when his term expires in May.

While the genial, popular President, a former senior Labor Party parliamentarian, has said he has no plans to return to political life and will devote himself to writing, his decision is taken by Labor Party leaders to mean he would be available to lead their party after a self-imposed ''cooling-off period'' of several months.

President Navon's decision focuses additional attention on the second much-awaited event, the report of the Kahan Commission into government conduct relative to the massacre of Palestinian refugees in west Beirut by Israel's Christian Lebanese militia allies.

The findings, expected within the next two weeks, could precipitate new Israeli elections if they place blame on government leaders.

For Mr. Navon to take up the Labor Party's reins, current party leader Shimon Peres would have to step aside. Mr. Peres, a technocrat whose popularity rating has been declining steadily, is said to be willing to make way for Mr. Navon as a face-saving way of stepping down.

Labor Party sources say Mr. Peres still thinks he has one final chance to become prime minister. His hope is that the Beirut massacre inquiry report will be so damaging to the government that its coalition partners will switch to Labor without an election, giving it a majority.

More of a problem for Mr. Navon's chances is former Labor Party Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who has preoccupied his party with his bitter struggle to replace Mr. Peres as party leader. Some of Mr. Rabin's followers have urged him to give way. Others are urging him to continue.

Mr. Navon has hinted he would accept his party's invitation if offered, but does not want to engage in a bitter political struggle for the post. This has revived questions within the party as to whether Mr. Navon is tough-skinned and decisive enough to take on the difficult task of premier, and the tough battle to win it.

Another would-be Labor candidate for prime minister, former chief of staff Mordechai Gur, last week warned President Navon against ''assuming that he would receive the Labor Party leadership on a silver platter.''

But with Mr. Navon at the helm, the party would improve its election chances, according to the polls.

Over the last six months polls have indicated a drop in public satisfaction with the government's performance. This has been attributed in large measure to falling living standards and to a lesser degree to dissatisfaction with the continued Israeli presence in Lebanon. But this has not been reflected in a parallel slippage in the governing Likud coalition's lead over Labor. Early elections could be facilitated by the next choice of president. A top candidate is said to be Interior Minister Yosef Burg, leader of the National Religious Party. The NRP, a key coalition partner of the Likud, has until now opposed Mr. Begin's known desire for early elections, because it is feared the NRP would do poorly. However, some NRP sources say that if Mr. Burg is elected president, his party might agree to early elections, a condition some Likud members are already embracing.

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