Arie “Lova” Eliav (Lifshitz), one of the founders of the Labor Party and one of the last members of Israel’s “greatest generation” of state-builders, died In Tel Aviv on Sunday at the age of 88.

Eliav was both a prominent politician, serving in five Knessets as part of a number of left-wing factions, and a public figure known for his grassroots action – from smuggling into pre-state Palestine thousands of Jewish refugees to establishing the eastern Negev city of Arad.

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Eliav was born in Moscow in 1921 and immigrated to Israel three years later. He was educated in the most prestigious schools of pre-state Palestine, finishing high school at the Herzliya Gymnasium and then studying history and sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Like many Israelis of his age, Eliav had a rich and varied military history. He joined the Hagana at the age of 15, and five years later volunteered for the British Army during World War II. At the end of the war, he became active in the Hagana’s intelligence arm and later began intensive efforts facilitating illegal immigration of Jewish refugees to the Land of Israel. It was while commanding a boat of illegal immigrants that he met his future wife, Tanya.

Eliav returned to the sea – or at least to naval service – again during the War of Independence, when he served as the commander of manpower for the nascent Naval Corps. In 1956, he commanded the operations to save the Jewish community of Port Said during the Sinai War.

In the late ’50s, Eliav held a senior position at Israel’s Moscow embassy, but his bureaucratic role was a cover story for his real position, as an agent assisting Jews to immigrate to Israel.

He also labored to settle them in new communities on Israel’s then-periphery. In the ’50s, he served as the head of programs to settle the southern Lachish region, then the northern-most reaches of the Negev desert, and in 1961, he led the project to establish Arad, on the eastern edge of the Negev, above the Dead Sea.

During 1965-1979, Eliav turned to politics, serving first in the Knesset as a member of Mapai and later as a member of the Labor Party. In 1967, immediately after the Six Day War, Eliav resigned to conduct a six-month survey of the situation among the newly-conquered Palestinian population, updating then-prime minister Levi Eshkol on his findings.

Although he was elected as the secretary-general of the Labor Party in 1970, he remained a controversial left-wing figure within the party, opposing the establishment of the settlements and butting heads with Golda Meir, who was prime minister at the time. The disagreements between the two led to his resignation a year later.

Eliav’s opposition to continued settlement in the West Bank led him to resign from the Labor Party itself in 1975, in the shadow of the Yom Kippur War. He then entered a period in which he searched for a political home, joining Ratz, forming Ya’ad, the Social-Democratic Faction, and then running for the Knesset as a member of the Sheli Party, only to resign his seat. In the 1984 election, he won 15,000 votes running as a one-party candidate, insufficient to win a seat. It was only when he returned to Labor in 1987 that he found his way back to the Knesset.

During the 1980s, he volunteered as a nurse at Tel Aviv’s Hadassah Hospital and as a teacher in Kiryat Shmona, Sderot and Ma’alot, and helped to establish the Educational Community of Nitzana in the western Negev. Although he won the Israel Prize in 1988 for his contribution to society, he was defeated by Ezer Weizman as the Labor Party’s nominee for the presidency in 1993.

While Eliav wrote a number of books over the years, it was his first work – The Land of the Hart - written in 1972, that remains the best-known of his works.

President Shimon Peres, who knew Eliav for most of his lifetime and who worked with him in different capacities and on numerous projects, said Sunday that Eliav had always excelled in his personal pioneering role and his responsible leadership role. He always believed in moving forward with the troops and not in standing over them, Peres said. “His contribution to the development of the Negev, including the Lachish region, the establishment of Arad and Nitzana are glorious milestones in the pathways of the state.”

Eliav always sought the most challenging and difficult places and set an example for generations of Israelis to follow, Peres said.

“Lova was an example for our nation of pioneering service,” Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog said. “In his social perspectives, in his understanding of the beauty of Israeli society as well as its complexities and of the need to bravely reach peace with our neighbors. His image and his beliefs will remain with us for generations.”

Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.

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