Former US ambassador to Israel, Sam Lewis, dies at 84

Lewis, who witnessed and helped shape a tumultuous period in Middle Eastern history, leaves a legacy of ‘miracle’ diplomacy

Yifa Yaakov is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Former US ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis (1930-2014) shakes hands with then-prime minister Shimon Peres as he prepares to leave Israel at the culmination of his service there, May 1985. (photo credit: Nati Harnik/Government Press Office)
Former US ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis (1930-2014) shakes hands with then-prime minister Shimon Peres as he prepares to leave Israel at the culmination of his service there, May 1985. (photo credit: Nati Harnik/Government Press Office)

Former American ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis passed away on Tuesday, leaving behind a legacy of diplomacy in a time of dramatic political and strategic realignment in the Middle East.

Lewis served as the US ambassador to Israel between 1977 and 1985 — a time period rife with dramatic developments in the region, such as Israel’s historic 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, the Camp David Accords, and the start, in 1982, of the first Lebanon war.

During his time in Israel, his first ambassadorship, Lewis was no stranger to controversy, nor to disagreements with Israel’s leadership. When Israel extended Israeli law to the Golan Heights from Syria in 1981, after 14 years of military rule over the disputed region, Washington protested the move. In response, then-prime minister Menachem Begin, who had famously won the Likud party a dramatic victory four years previously, summoned Lewis and raged at him, “You have no moral right to preach to us. Are we a banana republic?”

Subsequently, Lewis was recalled to Washington just as Israel prepared to return the Sinai to Egypt after agreeing on arrangements for the demilitarization of the area. But he was to remain in Israel with his wife Sally until 1985, only to visit it again over 50 times in the years following his return to Washington.

During this tumultuous time in Israeli and Middle Eastern history, Lewis was called on to pursue a vigorous course of “shuttle diplomacy.” But he was known for his ability to keep his cool — in part thanks to his penchant for scuba diving, a hobby he took up in Israel with gusto after finding the Red Sea “better and clearer” than the Caribbean.

“Two weeks after I arrived in 1977, during those hectic days of the peace process, I realized the psychic tensions of this job were going to be enormous and I would need some escape from politics,” Lewis told People magazine in a 1982 interview. “The moment I got to Sinai, I fell in love with the place—the contrast between the stark, dry, barren cliffs and the deep blue of the Gulf of Aqaba,” he said.

“The underwater life in the Red Sea is incredible. The Caribbean is beautiful, but the Red Sea is better, the water even clearer. The fish are so much more prolific, the colors much richer. And what a variety of coral!”

During his dives, Lewis managed to find some buried treasure, including a soup plate from an Egyptian ship torpedoed by Israel in 1948 and a cup and saucer from the galley of an ill-fated British trading ship.

Before his Israeli posting, Lewis had served in Italy, Brazil and Afghanistan, as well as filling a variety of roles on Capitol Hill. After retiring from the State Department, Lewis served as president and CEO of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), director of State Department Policy Planning, and active adviser to numerous groups and organizations committed to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Many decades after Lewis’s service in Israel came to a close, he continued to follow developments in Israeli-American relations, warning in an Israel Policy Forum conference call in 2009 that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama had “failed to establish trust” and telling Ha’aretz in 2011 that even though Washington highly valued “Jewish political support and votes,” Israel and America still had different priority lists.

“We will never have a president who is honorary president of the Zionists of America,” Lewis said in a telephone interview with Akiva Eldar.

In the same interview, Lewis admitted he had made two “tactical mistakes” during his time as ambassador — namely,
“believing the Palestinians could eventually accept a final agreement for two states, which did not include at least an equivalent amount of land to that which Israel occupied in 1967,” and “clinging for a long time to the optimistic judgment that a U.S. president could overcome — by enough persuasion and persistent ‘nudging’ — Israel’s political complexities, Holocaust memories and security obsessions without first having a prime minister determined to lead the Israeli people to take risks for peace.”

He added, “The Israeli peace camp is destined always to be disappointed in American presidents. We will never ‘save Israel from itself.’ No foreign leader’s arguments or threats can substitute in a democracy for the nation’s own choices.”

Lewis also demonstrated in-depth knowledge of Israeli society and the challenges facing it.

“Each time we visit friends in Israel they seem more disheartened, not only by the stalled peace process but by growing fissures within Israeli society along ethnic, racial and religious lines, by the widening gap between rich and poor, and by backsliding in Israel’s vaunted education system … [Yet] Israel is here to stay. What kind of Israel lies in the hands of Israelis, supported by their American ally. I believe the famous ‘Jewish brain’ will again rise to the test.”

Following Lewis’s passing, the Washington Institute think thank, on whose board he had served, eulogized the longtime diplomat.

“Sam Lewis was a legendary diplomat, imbued with the finest qualities of the foreign service — tough but compassionate, bold but contemplative, determined but conciliatory. In a career that took him from Afghanistan to Italy to the White House, Sam was best remembered for his eight years of service as US ambassador to Israel in the late 1970s and mid 1980s, a time of unprecedented regional realignment,” the institute, which specializes in US policy issues relating to Israel, said in a statement.

It added that Lewis had performed “miracles” in the field of “interpreting America to Israel and Israel to America, often absorbing the brunt of criticism for his efforts” — such as Begin’s famous outburst.

“Thanks in no small part to his creativity, sensitivity, and personal charm, the US-Israel relationship flourished on his watch, as Washington not only mediated peace between Israel and its largest and most powerful neighbor but also laid the foundation for the bilateral US-Israel strategic relationship. Decades after he left Israel, Sam is still remembered by both Americans and Israelis as the standard to which all others are compared.”

Lewis was also eulogized by Kristin Lord, acting president of USIP.

“Long after his tenure as president, Sam remained a consistent presence – and stalwart friend and advocate – of the Institute. His contribution to our programs and policy analysis, specifically related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and more broadly to the field of peacebuilding, will endure for decades to come. Sam never fatigued; his passion and endless determination for resolving seemingly intractable conflicts were inspiring. With his sharp mind, he brought new insights to the table. He held a quiet presence that made a powerful impression on all those around him. He will be missed and remembered,” Lord said.

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