Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis, who died Tuesday at 84, was "the essential American at Camp David" negotiations between Israel and Egypt because "he was the only one who really understood the Israelis," said Graeme Bannerman, former staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Without his vociferous explanation of Israeli concerns and constraints, the American delegation may not have been able to develop a balanced position."
Those qualities also impressed the chief Israeli negotiator at Camp David, Defense Minister Ezer Weizman. The future president nicknamed the American diplomat "Shmuel Levi."
Lewis served under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan from 1977 to 1985, the second longest tenure of any U.S. ambassador to Israel. It was a period of dramatic change in the region and in Israeli society and the country's relations with the United States and its Arab neighbors.
Lewis, who was not Jewish, was an astute and affectionate student of Israeli society and Jewish culture in all their aspects, a process that continued long after leaving the American Embassy. He made more than 50 trips back to participate in seminars and conferences, attend cultural events, visit friends and – a special favorite — go scuba diving in the Gulf of Aqaba.
Tom Dine, the former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said, "He personified the very best of the Foreign Service –and a genuine desire for peace in the Holy Land. He was an early and steady stalwart of peace for Israel."
Lewis had served on the State Department policy staffs under Secretaries Henry Kissinger and Warren Christopher and on Lyndon Johnson's National Security Council staff. He also helped mediate the successful launch of the Oslo Peace Accords between the Israelis and Palestinians in 1993 and 1994.
After his retirement he continued to pursue his deep commitment to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict He served as counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, president of the U.S. institute for Peace, a founding member of the Israel Policy Forum, and was affiliated with the Brookings Institution, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Georgetown University, Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University.
His wife Sally was "no less fond of Israel than was her husband," often returning on her own to visit friends or purchase Israeli works of art, reported the New York Times. "She remains an honorary member of the Israel branch of the International Women's Club."