'Our Politics Are Entangled'

Today, at 80, Samuel Lewis, former U.S. envoy to Israel, says he worries about Israel's current state of affairs but assures that 'Israel is here to stay.'

For some time - before even hearing the first question in our telephone interview - Samuel (Sam ) Lewis interrogated me about the state of the coalition, the settlement freeze and the odds that Benjamin Netanyahu will pleasantly surprise those yearning for a peace agreement.

A quarter-century has passed since Lewis bid goodbye to the hundreds of friends he made during the eight years that he served as U.S. ambassador to Israel, and he is still connected to this place by bonds of love and concern.

He assumed his post in 1977, the day after the political cataclysm, when Menachem Begin defeated Shimon Peres in the elections, and just a few months before Egypt's Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem. When he and his wife Sally returned to Washington in 1985, Shimon Peres was the serving prime minister in the rotation government with Yitzhak Shamir, inflation was growing at a staggering pace, and the peace process was going nowhere. Lewis, now 80, has visited Israel at least 50 times since then.

"We just can't get Israel out of our heads," he says. "I retired from the foreign service after 33 years in Italy, Brazil, Afghanistan, Israel and Washington. I can think of no other senior posts in the State Department which could compete with our time in Israel."

An avid scuba diver, Lewis took advantage of his stay here to dive off the Sinai coast, and at the end of his service in Israel, he retired from the State Department and traveled the world with his wife for a year and a half. "We traveled widely - from New Zealand, to diving off the coast of New Guinea, to Inca ruins in Yucatan and back to Jerusalem, where we spent six weeks to learn more about the city where I had worked several times a week for eight years, but never lived."

Lewis returned to Washington, where in 1987 he was named president of the United States Institute of Peace. Five years later, he was dispatched back to his favorite arena: Warren Christopher, the U.S. Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, put him in charge of policy development, which included implementation of the Oslo Accords. He retired two years later, taught at three universities and devoted time to informal diplomacy, consulting and writing position papers for the administration on affairs related to the Middle East conflict.

Samuel Lewis and Yitzhak Shamir
Government Press Office

Your detractors called you "the high commissioner" and Begin rebuked you, saying that Israel is not a banana republic that receives orders from the U.S.

Lewis: "Begin was right: Israel is not a 'banana republic.' Nor has any American official ever thought so! But neither is the United States. We will never have a president who is honorary president of the Zionists of America. However, our politics are thoroughly entangled, in both directions. No president will write off Jewish political support or votes. But when pushed into a corner by an Israeli prime minister's overconfident challenge, as happened to President G.H.W. Bush in the dispute over Israel's request for loan guarantees by Prime Minister Shamir, the president will confront AIPAC, and Israel's special friends in Congress, and win.

"We will always have different priority lists. We share some enemies, but certainly not all. We often disagree ... But ultimately, ours is like a Roman Catholic marriage: plenty of arguments, but no divorce."

You were the first American ambassador facing a right-wing Israeli government, whose attitudes toward the occupied territories and the settlements were totally opposed to those of your government. How did you maintain a good relationship with Begin's government, and later with Shamir's?

"Even though I had to deliver some very tough messages to him from time to time, fortunately, I was able to reach an unusually friendly relationship with Begin from the early days of my arrival in Israel on the day after his election. To the new Carter administration, Begin was largely an unknown warmonger. From his first days in office and his first Washington meeting with President Carter, Begin made indelibly clear that he would never yield any of the occupied areas of Judea and Samaria for peace, nor would he stop advocating and supporting Jewish settlements there. Nonetheless, Carter, more than any of his successors, never gave up trying to dent Begin's resolve in the interest of his highest priority project: achieving peace for Israel with all its neighbors, including the Palestinians."

Where did you go wrong back then?

"Leaving aside numerous tactical mistakes during those eight years, two of my policy judgments were clearly wrong: believing the Palestinians could eventually accept a final agreement for two states, which did not include at least an equivalent amount of land to that which Israel occupied in 1967, and arrangements for their capital in East Jerusalem. And clinging for a long time to the optimistic judgment that a U.S. president could overcome - by enough persuasion and persistent 'nudging' - Israel's political complexities, Holocaust memories and security obsessions without first having a prime minister determined to lead the Israeli people to take risks for peace, which a president can then help to minimize."

Since the first days of the peace process, the Israeli peace camp has been hoping that the U.S. will save Israel from itself. Why is this not happening, and is there any chance that it will in the future?

"The Israeli peace camp is destined always to be disappointed in American presidents. We will never 'save Israel from itself.' No foreign leader's arguments or threats can substitute in a democracy for the nation's own choices - especially when the issues are seen to be existential in nature. When Begin, Rabin or Barak are ready to move and have the political winds in their sails, the U.S. can and will push hard to make them succeed. If and only if Netanyahu or some successor truly wants a genuine peace settlement, and is ready to risk a good deal politically to achieve it, can American diplomacy push all sides effectively for an agreement. The 'peace camp' shouldn't wait for another president, or another bus. It won't be coming."

You often visit Israel and keep in touch with your friends from your days in Tel Aviv. Do you share their worries about the rise of support of right-wing parties, of people like Avigdor Lieberman, and about xenophobia and racism toward Arabs?

"Each time we visit friends in Israel they seem more disheartened, not only by the stalled peace process but by growing fissures within Israeli society along ethnic, racial and religious lines, by the widening gap between rich and poor, and by backsliding in Israel's vaunted education system. As Christian admirers of the incredible achievements of the Jewish state, we feel the pain of our friends and share in many of their worries about Israel's future. Yet, we continue to believe that a nation which has conquered so many greater obstacles in its short modern life will surge again to the fore with a new generation bursting with the vitality and creativity, which now appear so clearly in the private technological sector. It will come again to the political world; it must. Israel is here to stay. What kind of Israel lies in the hands of Israelis, supported by their American ally. I believe the famous 'Jewish brain' will again rise to the test."