Hermann Eilts, 84; Mideast Diplomat During Six-Day War

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 21, 2006

Hermann Frederick Eilts, 84, the American ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Egypt who helped negotiate the Camp David peace accords and who was once the target of Libyan assassins, died Oct. 12 of complications of heart disease at his home in Wellesley, Mass.

Mr. Eilts, one of the State Department's first Middle East specialists when he entered the Foreign Service in 1947, was a diplomat for 32 years. 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 learned to pump oil for the international market and later was U.S. ambassador there during the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War.

He aided former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during the 1974-75 period of shuttle diplomacy and became close to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during the tense negotiations with Israel in 1977 and 1978.

That alliance, as well as his standing as a leading American in the region, apparently prompted Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to send hit squads to Cairo in search of Mr. Eilts.

U.S. intelligence agencies discovered the plot, and President Jimmy Carter immediately warned Gaddafi that he would be held responsible if Mr. Eilts was harmed. The assassination attempt was not made public until years later. (The State Department's Web site reports that five U.S. ambassadors have been killed by terrorists, all between 1968 and 1979, in Guatemala, Cyprus, Sudan, Lebanon and Afghanistan.)

Mr. Eilts's 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. Mr. 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.

As he retired from the State Department in 1979, Mr. Eilts warned about the huge growth in American presence in Cairo. In 1973, when he arrived in Cairo to reopen the embassy after the rupture of relations in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, he had a staff of six Americans. When he left, the staff had grown to 190. In a departing interview, he said, "It could get out of hand. It's a mistake."

Mr. Eilts then 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. In 1991, he told The Post that expectations for democratic reforms in Kuwait after the Persian Gulf War were far too high.

He said on PBS's "Frontline" in 2003, "The religious element has from the beginning of the state [of Saudi Arabia] played a major role in legitimizing the actions of the rulership, and that continues through this day. . . . I don't see any way the [religious leaders] can be just pushed aside."

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

After the war, he received a master's degree in 1947 from Johns Hopkins's School of Advanced International Studies and immediately joined the Foreign Service. In addition to his overseas postings, mostly in the Middle East, Mr. Eilts also was deputy commandant and diplomatic adviser at the Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pa. In 1971, the State Department named him a career minister.

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

Survivors include his wife of 58 years, Helen Brew Eilts of Wellesley; two sons, Conrad Marshall Eilts of Bahrain and Frederick Lowell Eilts of Wichita; and four grandchildren.

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