David Levy, a former worker who became one of Israel's top leaders, dies at 86

David Levy, a Moroccan-born Israeli who rose from ditch-digger to Israel's political heights, often embodying the resentment of Jews of North African and Middle Eastern descent who felt mistreated by European-rooted elites, died Sunday in a Jerusalem hospital . . He was 86 years old.

The cause was not disclosed, but he had recently been treated for heart and kidney problems. His death was announced by the Israeli government.

Levy served as Israel's foreign minister three times in the 1990s and deputy prime minister even more often over the course of two decades.

As prestigious as those positions were, neither offered him the opportunity to shine fully. The position of deputy was largely ceremonial. And on vital foreign policy issues, such as negotiations with the Palestinians and Arab states or managing relations with the United States, he has been sidelined by prime ministers who have reserved those responsibilities.

The post of prime minister, Levy's real brass ring, eluded his grasp, despite his political dexterity.

He probably made a bigger mark earlier in his career, when he led ministries responsible for housing and construction and absorbing waves of immigrants. They were people no different than he was in 1957, when he was 19 and left Morocco with his family to start a new life in Israel.

As housing minister, he helped make apartments more affordable for the poorest Israelis. He also presided over the expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Politically, Levy has been an important figure in the right-wing Likud party for years. But he was less aggressive than many others in the party – more open, for example, to offering concessions to the Palestinians in exchange for what might reasonably pass for peace in a fractious land. He also believed that Israel's military invasion of Lebanon in 1982 was a mistake, distinguishing himself with this view from the Likud mainstream.

In a sense, his main contribution may have been an early example of political strength for the Mizrahim, Israelis of oriental origin, whose families emigrated en masse from North Africa and other parts of the Middle East soon after the birth of the Israeli state in 1948.

Those early immigrants, often inaccurately called Sephardic, felt they were treated miserably by the Ashkenazim, Jews of European origin, who had dominated government and politics.

Their bitterness has survived through the generations. Mr. Levy, never graced by layers of thick skin, was the leading voice of their discontent—and of himself. In 1992, during one of his many feuds with other Likud officials, he complained to supporters that “in the mouths of some I was a monkey just out of the trees.”

A member of Parliament from 1969 to 2006, he was an essential element in the rise of the Likud in 1977, when it overthrew the long-ruling Labor Party, thanks in large part to its populist approach to the disaffected Mizrahim. Even so, he remained eternally something of an outsider. In part, this was the result of his tendency to claim anti-Mizrahi bigotry whenever he didn't get what he wanted. Sometimes he was right.

With little formal education – he didn't get beyond eighth grade – Mr Levy was regularly regarded by some journalists and politicians as a yokel. Although he spoke Hebrew, French and Arabic, his lack of English proved a handicap in a country where relations with the United States are key.

Mocked for his carefully groomed crown of white hair and a speaking style that veered toward the pompous, he became the butt of vulgar jokes, such as one about waving at a refrigerator because it was General Electric.

The barbs stung, but he said, “I can understand them. I was a nobody, someone people had never heard of, and suddenly I was there on Olympus. The natural thing in a case like this is to undress.

Israel has always been governed by coalitions, always shifting and often unstable. In his various ministries, Levy had a habit, when he was unhappy, of threatening to resign, which, if he continued, could lead to the collapse of the government.

He had a particularly antagonistic relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, especially after Netanyahu became the Likud leader and then Israel's prime minister in the mid-1990s. It was then that Levy left Likud to form a new party called Gesher. Meaning “bridge,” it won some parliamentary seats by portraying itself as a social issues bloc focused on Mizrahi immigrants.

Despite their mutual hostility, Levy joined Netanyahu's government for a while. But as the 21st century approached, he aligned Gesher with a centrist government led by Ehud Barak.

It was another political marriage of convenience that didn't last long. Gesher vanished and in 2003 Levy returned to Likud. By then, he was a man of diminished influence, placed so low on the party's candidate list that he failed to qualify for Parliament in the 2006 election. He then left politics for good.

However, his importance as a Mizrahi pioneer has endured. He was recognized in 2018 when he was awarded the Israel Prize, the country's highest cultural honor, for being a “leader of social and political programs and in fighting for the poor.”

David Levy was born on December 21, 1937 in Rabat, Morocco, the second of eight children of Moshe and Sima Levy. His father was a carpenter who, like many immigrants of the time, had difficulty finding work after moving his family to Israel in 1957.

The Levys initially lived in a tent. They were then moved to an apartment in Beit She'an in northern Israel, one of many so-called development cities that have sprung up in the Galilee and Negev to absorb the influx of Holocaust survivors and immigrants from Arab countries.

In his youth, David Levy dug ditches and worked as a laborer. (His parliamentary biography listed “construction worker” as his occupation.) Because of eye problems, he never served in the military, unlike most young Israelis.

In Beit She'an, where he settled for life, he met and soon married Rachel Edri, a cook and cleaner at a local school. They had 12 children, including a daughter, Orly, who became a member of Parliament, and a son, Jackie, who was elected mayor of Beit She'an.

Mr Levy's survivors include his wife, children and what are said to be at least 40 grandchildren.

On construction sites, Mr. Levy discovered that he could be a skilled work organizer, if sometimes a hothead. During a period of unemployment, he was sentenced to 12 days in prison after leading rioters who destroyed a government office.

“Those were terrible days,” he told a biographer, Aryeh Avneri. “I looked at myself in the mirror and tears were streaming down my face. I understood that I had to do something to change my situation and that going around the unemployment office desks wasn't the right solution.”

So he entered politics, first in the Israeli trade union federation, Histadrut, and then in the right-wing nationalist Herut (Freedom) party, a central component of what would become the Likud, meaning “consolidation.” He quickly learned how to play the political game.

As he told his biographer, “I had to find a path to the corridors of power.”

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