Firebrand Israeli leftwinger and former cabinet minister Shulamit Aloni, a supporter of Palestinian statehood and opponent of the Orthodox Jewish establishment, died on Friday aged 85, her party said.

"Aloni died peacefully at a ripe old age, surrounded by her family," a statement on the website of the leftwing Meretz party that she headed. It did not elaborate on the cause or place of death.

The civil rights campaigner and longtime supporter of Palestinian statehood was eulogised by liberals and even hawkish rightwingers, including the Jewish state's current defence minister.

Aloni served during her 28-year parliamentary career as minister of education, of communications, science and as a minister without portfolio.

She was born in Tel Aviv on November 11, 1928 and was a member of the leftwing Hashomer Hatzair youth movement before being elected to parliament in 1965 as a member of the socialist Labour Alignment party.

In 1973 she quit Labour and founded the leftwing Zionist Citizens' Rights Movement (CRM) which won three seats in that year's general election and joined slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's Labour-led coalition government.

Aloni resigned her portfolio the following year in protest against the ultra-Orthodox National Religious Party's inclusion in the coalition.

In 1991 the CRM merged with two other small leftist parties to form Meretz, which today has six MPs.

Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, a hawkish member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling Likud party, paid tribute to Aloni, acknowledging "significant differences of opinion" between them over the years.

"I always admired her determination to fight for her positions and to make them heard in a loud and clear voice," he said in a statement.

"She was an important and inseparable part of Israeli public life for many years."

After retiring from political life in 1996, she was received in 2000 the Israel Prize, the country's most prestigious national award, for lifetime achievement, sparking howls of protest from ultra-Orthodox leaders.

The prize committee's citation praised Aloni's "struggle to promote peace, to improve relations between Jews and Arabs on the basis of mutual respect and to end the state of Israel's rule over the Palestinian people."

Aloni is survived by three sons, her husband of 36 years, Reuven Aloni, died in 1988, Meretz said.

She is to be buried on Sunday in Kfar Shmaryahu, the upscale suburb north of Tel Aviv where she lived.


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