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Hermann Eilts, 84; diplomat in Camp David peace accords

October 24, 2006|Patricia Sullivan | Washington Post

Hermann Frederick Eilts, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Egypt who helped negotiate the Camp David peace accords and who was once the target of Libyan assassins, has died. He was 84.

Eilts died of complications of heart disease Oct. 12 at his home in Wellesley, Mass.

A diplomat for 32 years, Eilts was one of the State Department's first Middle East specialists when he entered the Foreign Service in 1947.

Described in a 1979 Washington Post profile as a man with unflappable self-control, he helped keep peace during some of the major world crises of the 1970s and '80s.

He first served in Saudi Arabia when the kingdom had just begun to pump oil for the international market and later was U.S. ambassador there during the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War.

Eilts aided former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during the period of shuttle diplomacy following the 1973 Yom Kippur War and became close to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during tense negotiations with Israel in 1977 and 1978.

His work in helping to forge the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt, as well as Eilts' standing as a leading American in the region, apparently prompted Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi to send hit squads to Cairo in search of him.

U.S. intelligence agencies discovered the plot, and President Carter immediately warned Kadafi that he would be held responsible if Eilts was harmed.

The assassination attempt was not made public until years later.

The State Department's website reports that five U.S. ambassadors have been killed by terrorists, all from 1968 to 1979, in Afghanistan, Cyprus, Guatemala, Lebanon and Sudan.

Eilts' job required creativity in handling mundane as well as world-changing crises. When a Muslim religious leader discovered that the American School in the Saudi capital of Riyadh was coeducational, the resulting uproar forced the closure of the school.

Eilts negotiated for months with the king before striking a compromise: The students would have segregated entrances but would sit together in classrooms, which were not visible from the street.

After he retired from the State Department in 1979, Eilts joined Boston University as founder and director of its Center for International Relations. He often wrote, lectured and was quoted as an expert on Middle East political crises.

Born in Weissenfels Saale, Germany, he immigrated to the United States as a child and became a U.S. citizen in 1930, at age 8. He grew up in Scranton, Pa., and graduated from Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa.

Eilts served in Army intelligence during World War II in North Africa and Europe, receiving a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

After the war, he earned a master's degree in 1947 from Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies and immediately joined the Foreign Service.

In addition to his overseas postings, mostly in the Middle East, Eilts also was deputy commandant and diplomatic advisor at the Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pa.

Eilts served on the board of trustees of the American University in Cairo. He was a charter member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Helen Brew Eilts; two sons; and four grandchildren.

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