Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday paid tribute to former cabinet member and close friend Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, who died at age 77 earlier in the day, saying "he was a Jew through and through."

"We have lost a dear man, a dear Jew and an irreplaceable friend," Olmert continued.

Lapid succumbed to cancer early Sunday. He was hospitalized some six months ago after suffering a heart attack in his home.

Lapid was "a Holocaust survivor who lived and breathed Jewish fate, Jewish history and the Jewish future throughout his life," Olmert said.

The prime minister met Lapid for the last time on Tuesday when he visited him at Ichilov Hospital. His visit came shortly after the testimony of American fundraiser Morris Talansky, a key witness in the corruption investigation currently underway against Olmert.

Olmert sat by Lapid's bedside for two hours. During that time, the pair spoke very little as Lapid passed in and out of consciousness.

On Thursday, Lapid phoned Olmert's office, after which the prime minister returned the call at 8 P.M., and the two spoke to each other for the last time.

Journalist Amnon Dankner, a close friend of Lapid's, said that, "His mouth and heart were alike, and he was as loyal to himself as he was loyal to his family and to the people he loved. He was also not a man who was hated by his opponents."

Dankner added: "He had a huge appetite for life. He was a very educated man with a very broad understanding. A man who renewed himself every day. He will leave a huge void in my heart, which never be filled."

Even Lapid's many adversaries had kind words for him. "He was a man whose mouth and soul were on equal ground," Aryeh Deri, a former leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, told Army Radio. "You knew that what he had to say to you he would say to your face."

Lapid headed the Shinui Party, which sought to curb the growing political power of ultra-Orthodox parties. During the 16th Knesset, he served as justice minister and deputy prime minister.

A Holocaust survivor born under the name Tomislav Lampel in Benovitz, Serbia, Lapid later left politics to become chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial council.

During the war, his father was taken to a concentration camp and was killed two weeks before liberation. Lapid and his mother were placed with a group of Jews in Budapest whom the Nazis planned on killing along the banks of the river Danube. He was saved at the last minute, however, after his mother hid him and herself inside a toilet.

"As I've said, there I became a Zionist," Lapid told Haaretz in a 1995 interview, "because there I understood that there is not enough space in the whole world for a 13-year-old Jewish boy - so there must be one place for us. In Israel."

Lapid subsequently immigrated to Israel with his mother three years after the war at the age of 17.

He was immediately drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, where he served as a mechanic. Later on, he studied law at Tel Aviv University, and began to write for the Hungarian-language newspaper Uj Kelet, under the tutelage of author and satirist Ephraim Kishon.

Kishon soon presented him to the founding editor of the Maariv daily newspaper, Azriel Carlebach, who employed Lapid as his personal assistant. It was Carlebach who suggested Lapid Hebraicize his name from Lampel.

Among the top journalists in Israel, Lapid later served as part of the editorial staff at Ma'ariv, as financial director of the Broadcasting Authorities, as a member of the television program Popolitica, and as chairman of the cable television union. He was awarded the Sokolov Prize in 1998.

Lapid was first elected to the Knesset in the 1999 elections, in which his party gained six mandates. In the 16th Knesset, after the 2003 elections, Shinui reached the peak of its strength, receiving fifteen mandates. In the government subsequently formed, Lapid served under prime minister Ariel Sharon as justice minister and deputy prime minister.

Shinui pulled out of the government in December 2004 in protest against a decision to transfer hundreds of millions of shekels to the ultra-Orthodox sector. Lapid was then appointed opposition leader. The condition of his party, though, deteriorated from this point on until its final collapse, evidenced the 2006 elections in which it did not gain any Knesset seats.

Lapid is survived by his wife, the writer Shulamit Lapid, his daughter Meirav and his son Yair, the Channel 2 News presenter and Yedioth Ahronot newspaper columnist. Lapid's oldest daughter Michal died in a road accident in 1984.