Early on the morning of Nov. 15, the telephone rang in the residence of U.S. Ambassador Samuel W. Lewis in Tel Aviv. At the other end was a familiar voice—Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin—with an unprecedented request. Could the ambassador stand ready that evening, after a vote in the Knesset, to convey an official invitation to President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt? Sam Lewis said he would—and he did. It was the first of a flurry of messages.
“I was only a glorified postman,” says Lewis of his role in the breakthrough diplomacy but admits it was hardly workaday. “I’m getting old pretty fast,” quips the 47-year-old ambassador. “By the end of this year, I’ll probably be 60.”
Silver hair is usually an asset in the diplomatic corps, but Lewis, ungrayed and barely six months in the job, has already transformed the U.S. embassy from a figurehead to a place of real clout. The reason is stated by an official in Washington: “He is the first U.S. ambassador totally trusted by both the Israeli government and our own.” His interest, adds a colleague, is “in positive, cooperative work—not the cliché diplomacy of keeping out of trouble or protecting the flank. He is a serious man, sensible and relevant.” Before leaving for Israel earlier this year Lewis talked to Walworth Barbour, a predecessor in the post. ” ‘Don’t be too tricky,’ he said,” Lewis recalls. “I’m not a very tricky guy, so that was advice I could easily follow.”
Israel is his first ambassadorship, but Lewis, who is fluent in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, knows his way around embassies. After earning a Yale B.A. and a Johns Hopkins M.A. in international relations, he was posted to Italy, Brazil and Afghanistan. He has also been a senior staff member of the National Security Council and an Assistant Secretary of State. Somehow he has managed to avoid the occupational hazard of workaholism. An avid scuba diver since moving to Israel (one local paper joked: “Can American Ambassador Keep Head above Water?”) and an amateur actor, he has one great undiplomatic and unfulfilled ambition: to direct a repertory theater.
Simple affability is one of Lewis’ best assets. A Texan, he and his wife, Sal-lie, adapted quickly to Israel’s shirtsleeve diplomacy. They drive their own cars, introduce themselves as “Sam and Sallie” on receiving lines and preside unimperially over a household that includes daughter Grace, 20, and son Richard, 14. “We can trust him,” Begin says of Lewis. “He is a real friend.” As the Sadat visit proved, such close personal contact may be more than half the art of peacemaking.