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Ambassador Samuel Lewis: A personal tribute

The late US ambassador was a superb diplomat and a good friend of Israel

Samuel Lewis, the former US ambassador to Israel who died last week, was a Yale man, a career diplomat with a wealth of experience, a person of compassion with an open mind, an appealing demeanor, and a good friend with a great sense of humor. He was also very smart.

Over our first cup of coffee in 1977 shortly after his arrival in Israel, which more or less coincided with Menachem Begin’s election to the premiership, he told me in absolute candor, clearly for Begin’s ears, that President Jimmy Carter was impatient to get his Middle East peace policy going, and that he would not shrink from being “confrontational” (that was the president’s word). With equal candor he confided that he had informed the White House that “From everything I’ve heard Begin needs to be handled carefully, and honey is going to get us a lot further than vinegar.” His advice was heeded, so what was to have been an icy reception became a red carpet welcome. Such was the regard in which Lewis was held by the powerful in Washington DC.

He represented America with uncommon diplomatic skill during days of crucial and historic decisions for Israel, between 1977 and 1985. Oftentimes, there were clashes, but he remained steadfastly driven by a ringing impulse to assuage differences between the two countries without compromising his professional integrity. When, in June 1981 news got out that the Israel Air Force had totally destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor near Baghdad in a lightening raid, leaving President Ronald Reagan thunderstruck by surprise, Lewis made sure to set the record straight.

In a debrief he testified: “I had contacted Washington informally to make sure that a full paper on the subject was prepared by the transition team [from the Carter to the Reagan administration]. The paper was prepared I was later told but with such high classification and such extreme restrictions on its distribution that neither Secretary of State-designate Hague nor any of the incoming key White House officials ever saw it. This real bureaucratic ‘glitch’ during the change of administration meant that President Reagan apparently had never been properly briefed on the history, and had been astounded and blind-sided by the Israeli action.”

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)

Sam once told me that the most distasteful duty of his diplomatic career was the September 1982 top secret instruction he received from Washington in which he was told to go through the motions of consulting Prime Minister Begin about a Middle East peace initiative which President Ronald Reagan was to personally launch in a nationwide address within 72 hours. Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia had all been consulted and were privy to its details, but not Israel – not until Samuel Lewis presented them to the prime minister who was taking a well-earned rest in Nahariya in northern Israel as the 1982 war in Lebanon wound down.

En route to Nahariya Lewis perused again and again his presidential instructions and their accompanying “talking points,” and the more he read the more convinced he was that they were ineptly and inappropriately phrased. He was chagrined, too, at not having been consulted about a peace initiative more elaborate than any other before, and this one in the name of the president himself.

Arriving in Nahariya, he informed the prime minister in his controlled professional manner of the urgent nature of his mission, to which Begin, hurt to the core, responded with weary dignity, “Sam, this is the saddest day of my life.”

Intuitively, Begin felt that Lewis’s heart was not in it, but he nevertheless scolded him, and through him the president, in grim and harsh language: “Ambassador, please inform the president I have read his letter and am most unhappy with its contents and implications. I am astonished that your government did not see fit to indicate that such an initiative was in the making, or consult with the Government of Israel at any stage of its elaboration. This is entirely unacceptable. Of course I shall consult with my cabinet and then give you a response. We being a democracy – unlike those others with whom your government has seen fit to consult – necessitates my being allowed time before giving a formal response.”

Lewis, contrite, replied, “I shall certainly report your request, but I am required to tell you that the president intends to make his plan public within the next seventy two hours.”

This made Begin’s blood boil: “The plan, Mr. Ambassador, which has been thrust upon us, bears upon our very existence. I think President Reagan owes me at least that much to give my government time to render a considered response.”

He did not, and the initiative was launched.

In a follow-up letter to Reagan, Begin signed off with these words: “Mr. President, you and I chose for the last few years to call our countries friends and allies. Such being the case, a friend does not weaken a friend, and an ally does not put his ally in jeopardy.” And then, “For Zion’s sake I will not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest.” (Isaiah, chapter 62).”

Lewis was subsequently to tell me that he knew from the outset that the Reagan initiative was so flawed it was doomed to failure.

I once asked Sam what he thought of Begin’s sometimes pedantic style of speech which could get presidents a little irritated. Said Lewis with acumen, “He is one of the best negotiators I have ever met; he is a first class poker player. He sits there on the other side of the table, listens to a compromise proposal, displays a wounded heart as if to say in disbelief, ‘How can you possibly ask me to make such a concession?’ and refuses to yield. Eventually, as often as not, it is the other side that yields. That requires a masterly sense of timing – to stonewall, sending everybody nearly crazy, and then at the last minute, when all seems about to collapse, to make a tiny concession which suddenly looks huge to everybody else. That’s what I call a brilliant negotiator.”

There was this about Sam which made him so impressively competent as ambassador to Israel: it was his candor, his honesty, and his empathy for the country’s all to frequent dilemmas. Begin sensed this in him, and because of it the two men invited a mutual confessional trust, and came to like each other a great deal. Begin respected Lewis’s urbane and well-honed diplomatic skills which made him and his charming wife, Sallie, regulars in the social calendars of Israel’s elite. In fact, during Lewis’s eight years in Israel, which spanned the Carter and Reagan administrations, he became so well connected and was so well trusted politicians of whatever political hue would occasionally unburden their souls to him as if he was one of them.

I phoned Sam at his Virginia home. It was the day before he died. He knew where he was headed, and seemed at peace with himself. I don’t suppose there is a right and a wrong way to grieve the passing of an old friend. He and I often differed, but he never ceased caring immensely about Israel. Characteristically, his last words to me were, “Look after yourself, and may God keep Israel safe.”

About the Author
Ambassador Yehuda Avner served as adviser to five prime ministers. He is the author of the best-selling The Prime Ministers