Throughout his 30-year career in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and 16 years in politics, Gideon Ezra could always be seen with a cigarette.

Early on Thursday morning, he succumbed to a two-year battle with lung cancer at age 74.

Bad habits are not usually the first thing mentioned about the deceased, but in Ezra’s case, smoking is a major part of his legacy. He had dedicated himself in recent years to educating youth about the dangers of cigarettes.

He would point out his gaunt figure and hairless pate to groups of high school students visiting the Knesset.

“I’ve come to warn you about something that hurt me,” Ezra said to a Knesset auditorium full of teens in February 2011, in a speech that can be viewed on YouTube. “I had hair on my head six months ago. I was fatter. This is all because I have lung cancer.

It’s not a nice disease, neither is the medical care, and the people who suffer most are my family members.”

On his way out of the auditorium, Ezra asks the students how many of them will think twice before smoking, and most raised their hands. Then, he turned to the camera and said: “See, it was worth it.”

Ezra’s friends and colleagues in the legislature described him as an honest, hard worker who was up for any challenge.

“Gideon, you were a man of the brutal truth, who unlike other politicians, did not try to moderate your truth. You did not hide it, you did not dull it,” Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said in his eulogy to the MK at the funeral in his hometown of Kochav Yair attended by thousands.

“You did not try to buy the public’s heart with falsehoods or smooth talk. Your voice was always heard, and it was always relevant, even if your opinions were not always liked.”

“You always knew what he was thinking. He said it straight out, sharply, clearly,” former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, whom Ezra supported in the party leadership primary earlier this year, said at Ezra’s funeral.

Ezra had an illustrious career, beginning in 1962, when he joined the Shin Bet. After a two-year stint working for the Mossad in Europe, Ezra returned to Israel to manage the Shin Bet department dealing with Arabs in the north of Israel.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Ezra commanded three key sections in the Shin Bet, those dealing with the Gaza Strip and Sinai; the north and Lebanon; and Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, including during the first intifada. He was made Shin Bet deputy director in 1994, and left the service in 1995.

Kadima chairman and former IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz recounted working with Ezra when he was the Shin Bet’s No. 2 in the 1990s.

“It was then I learned of your many values – your seriousness, your judgment, how you took responsibility and made decisions,” Mofaz said at Ezra’s funeral. “You were a people person, a thinking, planning man, but also an extraordinary man of action.”

Mofaz pointed out that many of Ezra’s successes in the Shin Bet cannot be revealed, but said he stopped many terrorists and saved thousands of lives.

Ezra entered politics in 1996, and was elected to the Knesset as a member of the Likud faction.

He was considered one of the party’s most dovish MKs, advocating talks with Palestinians, and left to join Kadima upon its founding in 2006.

“He had a strong feeling of responsibility, that if he did not lead, things would be damaged,” Rivlin said. “In every discussion, Gideon would be ready, awake and listening, asking the most difficult and profound questions that could not be avoided or swept under the rug.”

Ezra was appointed public security minister in 2001. In the next five years, he also served as a minister-without-portfolio, tourism minister, and again as public security minister, before becoming environmental protection minister in 2006.

Ezra enacted major environmental reforms, including closing the Reading power station in north Tel Aviv because it did not meet the ministry’s standards, and forced it to switch to natural gas. He also legislated an increase in the number of plastic recycling bins throughout the country.

When Kadima did not form the government after the 2009 election, Ezra went from minister to opposition MK.

“Some politicians might see that as falling,” Ezra’s legal adviser in the Knesset, Hila Netaneli, said, “but he didn’t care. He just wanted to serve the public any way he could.”

Netaneli recounted Ezra’s work ethic, saying he would arrive at the Knesset at seven in the morning, and be one of the few MKs to stay in the plenum until the very last speech or vote.

When the 18th Knesset began in 2009, Netaneli would bring Ezra ideas for legislation relating to trendy topics in the media.

Ezra’s response, she explained, was representative of his personality: “He never wanted to pass laws just because they were populist or would get him a headline. He looked for bills that would be practical, helpful and could actually pass.”

Every letter or request sent to Ezra’s office in the Knesset would be read, and together with Netaneli, Ezra would try to find a way to help.

One of Ezra’s most successful endeavors in the 18th Knesset was regulating assisted living complexes for the elderly, a topic that had not yet been legislated. Ezra was concerned about those who lived in the complexes: their money, what kind of nurses were chosen to take care of them and the food that was being prepared for them.

The Welfare and Social Services Ministry got behind Ezra’s bill. It passed its first Knesset reading, and is being reviewed by the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee.

Ezra also continued working to protect the environment, and proposed and passed related bills in the 18th Knesset.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed “deep sorrow” over Ezra's death, saying that he “loyally served the Land of Israel throughout his entire life. His contribution to the security of the state was considerable; most of it will remain secret.”

“Gideon Ezra worked courageously for decades to keep Israel safe, with unending dedication,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, adding that Ezra was fair, responsible and talented.

President Shimon Peres described Ezra as someone “who spoke at eye-level and reached hearts. I will always remember him as a friend.”

According to Peres, Ezra made a unique contribution to the country’s security, was an honest man, and served the public throughout his life.