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David Levy, Moroccan-born ex-foreign minister of Israel, dies at 86

FILE - Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, right, makes a point during a news conference with Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy, left, at Erez checkpoint, Gaza Strip, July 23, 1996. Levy, an Israeli politician born in Morocco who fought tirelessly against deep-seated racism against Jews from North Africa and went on to serve as foreign minister and hold other senior governmental posts, died Sunday, June 2, 2024. He was 86. (AP Photo/Greg Marinovich, File)

JERUSALEM (AP) — David Levy, an Israeli politician born in Morocco who fought tirelessly against deep-seated racism against Jews from North Africa and went on to serve as foreign minister and hold other senior governmental posts, has died. He was 86.

Levy moved at age 20 from Morocco to Beit Shean, an isolated town in Israel's north. He first worked in construction and got his start in politics as a representative of the construction union.

He served in the Knesset, or parliament, from 1969 to 2006, holding the posts of foreign minister, deputy prime minister and housing and construction minister at various times. At the height of his career, he was a rival in the Likud party to Israel's current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel’s early leaders, mostly of European, or Ashkenazi, descent took a paternalistic attitude toward Jewish immigrants from Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Many of these immigrants, known as Mizrahi Jews, were sent to shantytown transit camps and largely sidelined.

Levy galvanized the disenfranchised Mizrahi community to help the right-wing Likud sweep to power under Menachem Begin, wresting control from the left-wing parties for the first time since the country’s founding.

During his tenure as foreign minister, starting in 1990, Levy renewed relations with many countries, including China and what was then the Soviet Union. He was the foreign minister during the Madrid Conference in 1991, which helped launch the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, though he did not attend.

“From the transit camp to the White House in Washington, to the State Duma in Moscow and on to the Elysee Palace in France," Levy told Haaretz. "In all these places, the transit camp was with me as were those eyes who I felt were accompanying me. My great achievement is that I paved the way for many more and created a reality in which people began to believe in themselves, in their potential to dare and succeed,” he said.

“With all of his heart and soul, he represented those that didn’t have anything,” long-time Likud politician Dan Meridor told Israel's Army Radio.

He added that Levy brought diversity to the Likud at a crucial time and ensured that Israel’s political echelons were not controlled by a small group of homogenous elites.

Levy is considered one of the country’s most effective housing ministers for pushing a series of major housing developments that helped modernize the "maabara," the word for the shantytown camps that housed Mizrahi Jews, including his own family, in the early decades of the state.

In 2018, he was awarded the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement, one of Israel’s highest honors. The selection committee called Levy “a social fighter for the weaker classes, a labor leader and representative of the development towns and the country’s outskirts.”

Netanyahu hailed Levy on Sunday, praising the man who “paved his way in life with his own two hands.”

“The life story of David Levy, the teenager that came from Morocco straight to the shantytowns, and from there made his way to the top leadership in the country – is a striking example of true and inspiring social leadership, which reflects the beautiful face of Israeliness,” President Isaac Herzog said.

Levy, with a head of thick, white hair, could command any room in French, Arabic and rich Hebrew. But he never mastered English and despite his successes in politics, Levy was plagued by racism throughout his career, including Israeli media that capitalized on derogative Moroccan stereotypes while portraying him in satirical programs.

The cause of the death was not disclosed, but in the past he had been hospitalized for heart ailments, according to Israeli media.

Levy was a father of 12 children, including a son and daughter who served in parliament. He continued to live in Beit Shean throughout his political career, traveling daily to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. He told a documentary film crew in 2018, “I decided, this is where I came when I got off the boat, and this is where I will stay.”

Melanie Lidman, The Associated Press

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