Alfred Atherton Jr. Dies at 80; Diplomat in Mideast Peace Deal
By Bart Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 31, 2002; Page B07
Alfred L. Atherton Jr., 80, 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 Oct. 30 at Sibley Memorial Hospital of complications related to cancer surgery.
Mr. Atherton served 38 years in the Foreign Service before retiring in 1985, and 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 more critical sections, with responsibility not only for 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 had the trust of both sides. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter named him ambassador-at-large for Middle East negotiations, and he spent two years as an air shuttle diplomat traveling between Middle Eastern capitals.
As ambassador to Egypt from 1979 to 1983, Mr. Atherton presided over what then was the largest U.S. diplomatic mission in the world, with a staff of 872 Americans and 500 Egyptians. In the wake of 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 after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's agreement to make peace with Israel. In October 1981, midway through Mr. Atherton's tenure as ambassador, Sadat was assassinated by a commando group led by an Egyptian Army lieutenant.
Mr. Atherton, a resident of Washington, was born in Pittsburgh. He gradated 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 the University of California at 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 o'clock at night. He worked Saturdays and parts of Sundays and was fiercely loyal to the Foreign Service as an institution.
In a widely publicized 1976 incident, he stepped forward to take public responsibility for leaking classified material to a magazine writer for an article on secret talks between Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and Middle Eastern leaders. Within the State Department, it was widely suspected that Mr. Atherton had in fact taken a fall for Kissinger, but this was denied by Deputy Undersecretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, who conducted an official inquiry into the leak.
The State Department made a public announcement that Mr. Atherton had been "severely reprimanded" by Kissinger. But the reprimand appeared to have little or no impact on Mr. Atherton's career. Shortly thereafter, Kissinger invited Mr. Atherton to lunch with the Israeli foreign minister for a discussion of important aspects of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Two years later, Carter named Mr. Atherton an ambassador.
Mr. Atherton's final two Foreign Service posts before retiring with the rank of career ambassador were director general of the Foreign Service and director of personnel for the State Department.
In his personal life, Mr. Atherton, who was known to friends and colleagues as "Roy," was a camera enthusiast who took hundreds of slide photographs at family gatherings and in his travels around the world. He had an extraordinary memory for names and faces. Family members recall an incident not long ago when Mr. Atherton was stopped in a Giant Food parking lot on Wisconsin Avenue by a man who addressed him as "Mr. Ambassador." Mr. Atherton had not seen the man in 20 years, but he addressed him by name and inquired after his wife and children. The man was the former chauffeur of the Egyptian ambassador in Washington.
On retiring from the Foreign Service, Mr. Atherton was director for six years of the Harkness Fellowship program of the Commonwealth Fund of New York, which subsidizes fellowships in the United States for people from the British Isles, Australia and New Zealand.
From 1989 to 1998, he was director of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation, which awards fellowships to Foreign Service officers.
He wrote articles for the op-ed pages of newspapers and was a visiting professor on Middle Eastern affairs at Hamilton, Mount Holyoke and Birmingham Southern colleges.
He was a member of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington.
Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Betty Wylie Atherton of Washington; three children, Lynne Dat of Dallas, Reed Atherton of Albuquerque and Michael Atherton of Dallas, Ore.; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.