Samuel W. Lewis, a former American ambassador to Israel and an enduring friend who returned more than 50 times after completing an eight-year tour of duty in 1985, died at his home in Virginia on March 10. He was 83.
Lewis had been suffering from lung cancer and relied on an oxygen tank for some time.
Another former US ambassador, Daniel Kurtzer, and his wife, Sheila, had planned to visit Lewis at the beginning of the week but were told by his wife, Sallie, that he was not up to receiving visitors.
Lewis took up his ambassadorial post here at a time of political change, following Menachem Begin’s crossing the floor from leader of the opposition to prime minister.
Begin was Israel’s first rightwing leader, and Lewis quickly had to adapt to the new reality.
He also came just as a new chapter in Middle East history was about to evolve with the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, something in which he was also involved. He was still in Israel during the first Lebanon war, which in his time was referred to as Operation Peace for the Galilee.
Lewis, who was not Jewish, was so deeply involved in the day-to-day back-and-forth between Israel and the US, and was so curious about Israeli and Jewish culture, that Ezer Weizman, a Camp David negotiator who later became defense minister, nicknamed him “Shmuel Levi.”
The ambassador played a key role in calming recurring tensions between Begin and US President Ronald Reagan, first in 1981, when Israeli planes destroyed a nuclear reactor in Iraq, and again in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon.
Some Israeli right-wingers resented his influence and dubbed him the “high commissioner,” a derisive reference to the pre-independence British rulers of Palestine. The political establishment, however, appreciated his avuncular style, civility and interest in the country.
“He performed miracles in terms of interpreting America to Israel and Israel to America, often absorbing the brunt of criticism for his efforts,” said a statement from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank he advised since its founding in the late 1980s.
His involvement in the peace process led to a long career in retirement studying and analyzing peace issues, first by leading the congressionally mandated US Institute for Peace from 1987- 1992, and then as a founding member of the Israel Policy Forum, a group set up in the early 1990s to back Clinton- era peace efforts.
“Due to the power of his intellect, his charm and his gravitas, Sam was a pro-peace powerhouse in Washington, influencing policy-makers and policy-shapers to never give up on peace for Israel and her neighbors,” Debra DeLee, president of Americans for Peace Now, said in a statement.
Lewis joined the State Department in 1954. He served in several important positions and as deputy chief of mission in Kabul. Israel was his first posting with the rank of ambassador.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Dina Badawy issued the following statement: “It is with great sadness that we mourn the passing of Ambassador Samuel W. Lewis.
Ambassador Lewis was a devoted and compassionate public servant who worked tirelessly as an advocate of strong US-Israeli relations.
Ambassador Lewis was a visionary whose commitment to peace was instrumental in bringing about the Camp David peace agreement. We honor Ambassador Lewis’s service to his country, and extend our deepest condolences on his passing.”
Lewis endeared himself to Israelis well beyond political and diplomatic circles, partially because was a jazz fan and partially because it was in Israel that he developed a passion for scuba diving. Following his posting, he and Sallie frequently returned, both separately and together, sometimes on private visits but more often because Lewis had been invited to participate in a conference or seminar.
With the exception of one of his predecessors, Walworth Barbour, Lewis served in Israel longer than any other American ambassador and had many personal friends here with whom he communicated on a weekly basis.
The campaign to free Jonathan Pollard expressed condolences to the family of Lewis, who recently came out in favor of the Israeli agent’s release on humanitarian grounds.
Michael Wilner from Washington and Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.