Alfred L. Atherton Jr., a Foreign Service officer and Middle East expert who helped in the negotiations that led to the 1978 Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt, died Wednesday at a hospital in Washington, D.C., of complications related to cancer surgery. He was 80.
Atherton served 38 years in the Foreign Service before retiring in 1985. His career also included four years as ambassador to Egypt and four years as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs. In this role, he directed one of the State Department’s most critical sections, with responsibility related to not only Arab-Israeli disputes, but also the hostility between India and Pakistan.
As a Middle East peace negotiator, he was said to have been able to understand and articulate the historic grievances of Israelis and Palestinians, and to have had the trust of both sides. In 1978, President Carter named him ambassador-at-large for Middle East negotiations, and Atherton spent two years as a shuttle diplomat, traveling between Middle Eastern capitals.
As ambassador to Egypt from 1979 to 1983, Atherton presided over what then was the largest U.S. diplomatic mission in the world, with a staff of 872 Americans and 500 Egyptians. After the Camp David accords, hundreds of Americans were dispatched to Cairo to help administer $1.5 billion a year in military and economic assistance that flowed from the United States.
In October 1981, midway through Atherton’s tenure as ambassador, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who had agreed to make peace with Israel, was assassinated by a commando group led by an Egyptian Army lieutenant.
Atherton, a resident of Washington, was born in Pittsburgh. He graduated from Harvard University and served in the Army in Europe during World War II.
He joined the Foreign Service in 1947, and in early assignments served in Germany, Syria and India, in addition to postings in Washington. He received a master’s degree in economics from UC Berkeley.
In the Foreign Service, he had a reputation as a tireless worker who routinely was in his office by 7:30 a.m. and rarely left before 8 at night. In his personal life, Atherton, who was known as “Roy,” was a camera enthusiast who took hundreds of slide photographs at family gatherings and in his travels around the world.
Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Betty Wylie Atherton of Washington; three children; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.