Opinion | Opinion

Samuel Lewis and Israel’s dream of peace

NEW YORK (JTA) — The last time Ambassador Samuel Lewis was at an Anti-Defamation League podium was in April 2008 as part of a roundtable celebrating Israel’s 60th anniversary. The speakers were each asked to share their most vivid and representative recollections of Israel.

Sam, a distinguished State Department veteran, served as the U.S. ambassador to Israel from 1977 to 1985, and had engaged in tough battles with Israel’s leaders over the negotiations with Egypt and particularly over the Lebanon War. Yet, what he chose to recall, so poignantly, was what it was like to stand on the tarmac alongside Israel’s political and security elite waiting for Anwar Sadat’s plane to land for the Egyptian president’s breakthrough visit to Jerusalem on Nov. 19, 1977.

Sam described that Saturday evening, standing on a red carpet alongside Menachem Begin, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon and dozens of others, all figures who had been present at Israel’s creation, who had dedicated their lives to the survival and security of the Jewish state. These political and military leaders had spent four decades combating the menacing threat posed by the Egyptian army, and its potential to eradicate the State of Israel.

On that day, no one was quite sure what Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem would mean, and there was an air of nervous excitement.

In Sam’s telling, when Sadat finally emerged from the plane and began making his way to meet the assembled dignitaries, these hardened, cynical, war-weary leaders, experiencing this game-changing gesture of reconciliation from Israel’s leading Arab foe, had tears in their eyes.

Sam Lewis passed away this week at the age of 83. While we didn’t always see eye-to-eye, he was an American who “got” Israel, made significant contributions to the strengthening of U.S.-Israel relations and was someone who always recognized how desperately Israel yearns for peace.

As American ambassador to Israel during a critical period in Israel’s history, Sam engendered trust in Israeli leaders so that he could talk honestly with them at sensitive moments. He was the perfect example of a diplomat who, by virtue of his personality and professionalism, could ease the way through sometimes treacherous waters to make solutions possible.

It happens that March 26 will mark the 35th anniversary of the signing of the Israel-Egypt peace agreement — of which Sadat’s visit to Israel was a harbinger and which Sam played an important role in helping facilitate. After decades of a “cold peace” and the insecurity brought on by the Arab Spring and the ongoing turmoil in Egypt, it is easy to gloss over how historically momentous this first Arab-Israeli peace agreement was, and continues to be. Peace with an Arab neighbor was something Israelis had only dreamed of for decades, and while flawed, on the most practical level it meant that young Israeli men were no longer being killed on Egypt’s battlefields.

Today, the idealism and hope of peace can seem very far away. Israelis are abuzz speculating over the details of Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. While poll after poll shows support for negotiations, they also demonstrate an ingrained Israeli skepticism about the Palestinian commitment to reconciliation and willingness to make hard decisions for peace. At the same time, there are renewed worries over a new wave of Gaza rockets raining down on southern Israel and persistent fears about Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

And yet, amid the very legitimate doubt and uncertainty, Sam Lewis’ passing is a moment to remember that we cannot allow ourselves to lose the idealism and promise of peace — a peace which ensures the security and well- being of the Jewish state, and whose realization will surely be difficult and imperfect. Yet, a peace whose promise, as Sam described, can bring tears to the eye of even to the most hardened Israeli.

(Abraham H. Foxman is the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.)