FIRST on Israeli President Yitzhak Navon's agenda yesterday was George Washington's home, Mount Vernon. It was his request.

"He's the first president," said Navon, sitting in the back of his limousine in the motorcade speeding through the cold drizzle of Alexandria. "I'm always instructed by those who are first in all fields . . . I understand he was very conscious of the fact that he was first. He was going to be setting a precedent."

In Israel, Prime Minister Menachem Begin holds the political power, and Navon does little precedent-setting. But recently, his name has surfaced as a possible candidate to head the Labor Party list for prime minister if Begin calls new elections this year. Navon is 61, well-liked, diplomatic, and fluent in English, Hebrew, Arabic and Spanish.

But now, riding to Mount Vernon on the second day of a 10-day visit to the United States, Navon seems annoyed about the fuss and speculation over the impending announcement of whether he will run. He says he's made up his mind, but he won't reveal it until next month in Israel.

He bristles at the notion that U.S. officials, such as Secretary of State George P. Shultz, whom he saw Tuesday, or President Reagan, with whom he talked and had lunched yesterday, could try to influence his decision. "They would be mad to interfere in the politics of Israel," he said angrily. "They won't do that.

"I read in a newspaper that before I made my decision I came here to test the waters. It's ridiculous! How can America nominate someone for prime minister in Israel?"

He says his decision has nothing to do with the judicial commission set up to investigate Israel's role in the massacres at the Shatila and Sabra refuge camps in Lebanon. However, he was one of the first to call for such a commission, and has said he would have resigned the presidency had it not been established.

As president, a nonpolitical, figurehead position in Israel, Navon has managed to steer clear of the name-calling and mud-slinging that has characterized Labor Party politics since Labor lost power to Begin's Likud Party in 1977. His credentials, too, are in his favor: He comes from a family of Sephardic Jews who, expelled from Spain, fled to Turkey and then settled in Jerusalem more than 300 years ago. He cut his political teeth under Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who in 1952 plucked him from a foreign ministry job to tutor the prime minister in Spanish. Over the next 10 years, Navon became one of Ben-Gurion's most trusted advisers. In 1965, he was elected to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and in 1978 he ran unopposed (his main opponent withdrew) for president and was elected overwhelmingly by the Knesset.

But until his term ends in the spring, he intends to guard his words. "I'm not paid for thinking aloud," he said. "I know those limitations . . . I will express those points about which there is a consensus in my country. If you want politics, you should be in politics."

Then how did he bring himself to speak out on a commission to investigate the massacres?

"That," he said, "was a moral issue."

On his tightly scheduled visit to the United States (three days in Washington, two in Boston, five in New York), Navon has "almost no sightseeing," he explained in the limousine. "In Boston, I wanted to see where the first settlers were. I just get to see the Kennedy Library."

"They were not the first settlers," deadpanned Moshe Arens, Israel's ambassador to the United States, seated next to Navon. Everyone chuckled. "They came a little later."

In another limousine rode his wife, Ofira, 46, a psychologist with a master's degree from the University of Georgia who was director of the department of psychology at the Alyn Hospital for Crippled Children in Jerusalem. She is no longer employed--the wife of the president cannot earn a One Fine Day of Firsts For the Silent Man of Israel President Yitzhak Navon Makes His Quiet Way Through Washington By Carla Hall

FIRST on Israeli President Yitzhak Navon's agenda yesterday was George Washington's home, Mount Vernon. It was his request.

"He's the first president," said Navon, sitting in the back of his limousine in the motorcade speeding through the cold drizzle of Alexandria. "I'm always instructed by those who are first in all fields . . . I understand he was very conscious of the fact that he was first. He was going to be setting a precedent."

In Israel, Prime Minister Menachem Begin holds the political power, and Navon does little precedent-setting. But recently, his name has surfaced as a possible candidate to head the Labor Party list for prime minister if Begin calls new elections this year. Navon is 61, well-liked, diplomatic, and fluent in English, Hebrew, Arabic and Spanish.

But now, riding to Mount Vernon on the second day of a 10-day visit to the United States, Navon seems annoyed about the fuss and speculation over the impending announcement of whether he will run. He says he's made up his mind, but he won't reveal it until next month in Israel.

He bristles at the notion that U.S. officials, such as Secretary of State George P. Shultz, whom he saw Tuesday, or President Reagan, with whom he talked and had lunched yesterday, could try to influence his decision. "They would be mad to interfere in the politics of Israel," he said angrily. "They won't do that.

"I read in a newspaper that before I made my decision I came here to test the waters. It's ridiculous! How can America nominate someone for prime minister in Israel?"

He says his decision has nothing to do with the judicial commission set up to investigate Israel's role in the massacres at the Shatila and Sabra refuge camps in Lebanon. However, he was one of the first to call for such a commission, and has said he would have resigned the presidency had it not been established.

As president, a nonpolitical, figurehead position in Israel, Navon has managed to steer clear of the name-calling and mud-slinging that has characterized Labor Party politics since Labor lost power to Begin's Likud Party in 1977. His credentials, too, are in his favor: He comes from a family of Sephardic Jews who, expelled from Spain, fled to Turkey and then settled in Jerusalem more than 300 years ago. He cut his political teeth under Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who in 1952 plucked him from a foreign ministry job to tutor the prime minister in Spanish. Over the next 10 years, Navon became one of Ben-Gurion's most trusted advisers. In 1965, he was elected to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, and in 1978 he ran unopposed (his main opponent withdrew) for president and was elected overwhelmingly by the Knesset.

But until his term ends in the spring, he intends to guard his words. "I'm not paid for thinking aloud," he said. "I know those limitations . . . I will express those points about which there is a consensus in my country. If you want politics, you should be in politics."

Then how did he bring himself to speak out on a commission to investigate the massacres?

"That," he said, "was a moral issue."

On his tightly scheduled visit to the United States (three days in Washington, two in Boston, five in New York), Navon has "almost no sightseeing," he explained in the limousine. "In Boston, I wanted to see where the first settlers were. I just get to see the Kennedy Library."

"They were not the first settlers," deadpanned Moshe Arens, Israel's ambassador to the United States, seated next to Navon. Everyone chuckled. "They came a little later."

In another limousine rode his wife, Ofira, 46, a psychologist with a master's degree from the University of Georgia who was director of the department of psychology at the Alyn Hospital for Crippled Children in Jerusalem. She is no longer employed--the wife of the president cannot earn a salary, according to Ofira Navon's personal assistant--but works with other projects concerning children. She is currently trying to set up a worldwide Shelter Cities, a project which would provide immediate refuge for children caught in a war or natural disaster. The former "Sabra of 1956" (a title she won in the International Ideal Young Girl contest), she met her husband when she was home in Israel in the early 1960s on a break from graduate studies at Columbia University.

She is attractive and pleasant, dressed in outfits she bought especially from Israeli designers to show off their work on her U.S. trip. Three years ago, she was diagnosed as having breast cancer. "She's now well," said Grace Dayan, her personal assistant. Navon did not have a mastectomy but a growth under her arm was removed and she underwent chemotherapy. "She lost her hair during the treatments," said Dayan. "But it's now grown back almost twice as thick."

"Sorry about the rain," Mount Vernon curator Christine Meadows said apologetically to the Navons. John Castellani, director of Mount Vernon, was also present to greet Navon, who proved a knowledgeable and inquisitive tourist. He queried Meadows as she led him and his entourage through the chilly, dark rooms and pointed out furniture, art works and their significance.

Standing outside on the porch of the house, Navon silently drank in the expanse of the Potomac River, still awesome in winter rain and gray fog.

"Where are the trees he planted?" Navon asked.

"We have five or six of them," Castellani answered.

"They're still here?" Navon asked. "When did he plant them?"

"Seventeen eighty-five," Castellani answered. "We take very good care of them."

Navon ran his hands over the backs of the chairs, lined up on the porch and nailed on runners into the floor. "They were like this?" he asked.

"No, we did that," Meadows said.

After a stop at Washington's tomb, Navon's motorcade was en route to his hotel, the Sheraton Washington.

"They maintain it with $3 million--all private initiative," said Navon admiringly of Mount Vernon.

"That would take care of the budget of Israel," quipped Arens.

"The budget of Israel?" asked Navon, looking stricken.

"Just kidding," said Arens.

"My dear friend," said Navon with a smile, "don't kid."

Navon is prepared to defend his country, but says he can do little for its tarnished public image.

"I will not invent things in order to repair the image," he said. "I just tell what I see as the true situation. War is something ugly . . . Yassir Arafat says he stayed 79 days in Beirut. He didn't explain why. It was because our army hesitated to enter--because we knew there were citizens there. You didn't see this on television."

His face crinkled with incredulousness. "Eighty days for Beirut?" he asked. "They could have finished it in two weeks. But we held back. Eighty days for Beirut." He shook his head and shrugged. "You could have conquered it in two days if you wanted to. I think we paid dearly for that consideration of civilian safety .

"And you heard nothing of rape by the soldiers, no slaughter of innocent people. I asked these questions of the commanders in Israel." Some of those soldiers he knew. "In Israel, a general can be a doctor, a chauffeur. My dentist was there. It's an army of the people."

Most of his job, though, has little to do with the military. "It's a symbol," he said. "There are two main things a symbol can do. How do you forge a nation out of all these different people? People from India, from Afghanistan, from Kurdistan . . . What is the common denominator? We've luckily found it. The Bible, the past."

Navon visits these communities of immigrants. "They come to me, I go to them. I try to find out--where are the people from the island of Gharbi? That's Tunisia. Five thousand people. I find them. The second thing a president can do is set high expectations--give them pride in themselves. 'Okay, you started with a left foot--but you can still make it.' These are the main things I've tried to do.

"We don't have natural resources. The Bible says it's the land of milk and honey--it didn't say petrol. We have human resources. We have to develop that."

Does he ever get frustrated that he is not able to speak his own views publicly?

"Do I look like a frustrated man?" he asked. "There were moments in the past four-and-a-half years when I thought, 'It's getting tough to keep silent.' But I've never regretted it."

Later in the morning, Navon would see Ronald Reagan for a discussion and lunch. Navon had never met him. "I have a feeling I've known him a long time," Navon said. "I've read about him. I've seen him on television. I have very warm feelings toward him. I like the type of person he is. Humanistic. A self-made man. Courageous . . . He's a real friend of Israel." And of the U.S. government's opposition to the burgeoning Israeli settlements on the West Bank, Navon said, "That doesn't have to do with loving Israel or not."

Last night at a reception in his honor at the Israeli Embassy, Navon was asked how his meeting with Reagan had gone.

"I have a problem," he answered. "I like him very much."