Samuel Lewis’s career in the U.S. foreign service spanned more than three decades, but for all those involved in the Middle East peace process, Lewis will always be the U.S. ambassador to Israel, a position he filled in 1977, and during which he played a pivotal role in brokering Israel’s first peace accord, with Egypt.
On Monday, dozens of Lewis’s friends showed up to attend the dedication of the Samuel W. Lewis Hall at the U.S. Institute of Peace, part of an event honoring donors who supported the institute’s dedication of its halls, conference rooms and public spaces to former diplomats and foreign policy leaders. “This is not just a corridor,” former ambassador Lewis said of the hallway carrying his name, “it is a corridor to peace.”
After ending his term in Tel Aviv, Lewis filled several top positions at the State Department, but Middle East peacemaking remained his passion. Lewis, 82, was involved in several programs aimed at bringing about Arab–Israeli peace and has supported dovish groups such as the Israel Policy Forum and J Street. “One day, when there will be peace, it will be thanks to people like you,” said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington at the dedication event. And a letter written by Israeli President Shimon Peres stated: “To say Sam Lewis is to say champion of peace.”
The USIP’s new headquarters, which opened its doors last September, is a $186 million architectural gem overlooking Washington’s National Mall and the Lincoln Memorial. Designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, the white building was planned to add an element of peace to the otherwise war-themed corner of the National Mall, which includes the Korea, Vietnam and World War II memorials. The U.S. Institute of Peace is an independent think tank funded by Congress and devoted to preventing and resolving global conflicts. Sam Lewis served as the first president of the institute after he retired from the foreign service.
Among those attending the dedication of the Sam Lewis Hall at the USIP was Martin Indyk, who served twice as U.S. ambassador to Israel. Indyk described Lewis as his “mentor and inspiration” and said that before leaving for Tel Aviv to assume his post he met with the veteran diplomat for some last minute advice. The first suggestion Lewis made was that Indyk “spend a lot of time” with Mira Avrech, who at the time was Israel’s leading gossip columnist.
The second piece of advice sounds strikingly relevant even today. Lewis told Indyk about one of the rough patches he went through while serving as ambassador, when the government of Menachem Begin decided to bomb the Iraqi nuclear site in 1981 without consulting America and without a word of advance warning. “Just remember,” Lewis told the young ambassador to be, “It’s not when the Israelis make a lot of noise that you need to worry, it’s when they turn silent.”
Indyk said jokingly that he “got shivers” in recent days upon noticing that Israeli government officials had become uncharacteristically reluctant to speak publicly on the issue of Iran and its nuclear program.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.