Levy, 80, was born in Rabat, Morocco, and later himself became a champion of Israel’s poor and new immigrants. He was foreign minister for three separate stints in the 1990s.
Levy, also a deputy prime minister for much of the ‘80s and ‘90s, “is one of the originators of the melting pot of Israeli society, a social justice warrior for the weaker classes, a labor leader and representative of the development towns and the country’s outskirts,” the prize committee said in a statement.
It added: “Levy’s personal story is that of a youth who made aliyah to Israel from Rabat, Morocco, to a transit camp and development town, and from this low point climbed to the heart of public and social activity.”
Levy’s daughter, independent Knesset member Orli Levi-Abekasis, said her father was “receiving the Israel Prize and with him an entire generation of people he represented and fought for.” His son, deputy housing minister and MK Jackie Levy (Likud), called his father “a man whose straight path bridged the painful and numerous gaps in society ... a seeker of social justice.” Levy has 10 other children.
President Reuven Rivlin said Levy “blazed the trail from the periphery to the heart of Israel, the pioneer who led others to believe that it was possible.”
Levy was born in 1937 and came with his family to Israel when he was 20. He lived in a transit camp in Beit She’an when he arrived, and has lived in that northern city ever since.
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In the 1960s he joined Menachem Begin’s Herut party, which later became Likud. By 2006 he had served in the Knesset for 37 years, 20 of them in the cabinet.
He was appointed immigrant absorption minister in Begin’s first cabinet in 1977 and was housing and construction minister from 1979 to 1990. He was first appointed foreign minister in Yitzhak Shamir’s government in 1990.
In 1996 he founded the Gesher party, which he called the “true Likud,” and again served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister under Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu. He later rejoined Likud and was one of the party rebels who opposed the 2005 Gaza pullout.
As housing minister, he made it much easier for new immigrants to receive mortgages and solved a severe housing shortage by massively increasing construction by the state. He changed the development towns in the country’s outskirts by allowing people to build their own homes, a change that kept the better-off residents from leaving.
The prize committee also cited his contribution as foreign minister for launching the peace process with the Palestinians at the Madrid Conference in 1991, though Shamir attended instead of Levy.
Levy was also mentioned as a possible candidate for president in 2014.
In 1993, when he was running for the Likud leadership, his supporters said they had a video of his rival Netanyahu proving that Netanyahu was conducting an extramarital affair. Such a video never turned up, but Netanyahu in dropped hints about Levy, calling him “a man in Likud surrounded by a gang of criminals.”
The Israel Prize ceremony will take place in Jerusalem on April 19, when Israel celebrates its 70th birthday.
Since his retirement, Levy has kept a low profile. He’s just “a retiree,” Levy told the Mako website in a rare interview three years ago. “I don’t have plans anymore. I don’t have anything to do with politics anymore and am no longer interested in politics. That’s the truth. I’ve done my part, bless God. Enough. Changing of the guard and that’s it.”