U.S. Ambassador at large Alfred Atherton returned to Egypt yesterday for talks with Egyptian leaders about the possibility of reviving the Middle East peace negotiations.

It is apparently going to be a low key, exploratory visit, since Atherton said he was not bringing any major new proposals. It does not even represent a resumption of his unsuccessful shuttle of February and March - when he flew back and forth between Egypt and Israel in a vain attempt to bring them into agreement on the wording of a declaration of principles that would be the basis for negotiations - since he is not going to Israel this time.

He called off the Israeli portion of his trip when it was announced that Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan was going to Washington next week.

Atherton is to see Foreign Minister Mohammed Ibrahim Kamel today and fly to the Red Sea port of Hurghada on Sunday for talks with President Anwar Sadat, then return to Washinton.

"Basically," Atherton said in a brief arrival statement, "I am here simply as part of the continuing process of exchanging views, looking for new ideas. New ways to move the peace process forward."

Egypt has welcomed Atherton's return, but Egyptian officials have said that this is not the place to find the "new ideas" needed to bring about a resumption of direct Egyptian-Israeli negotiations.

In Egyptian view, this country and the United States have been in substantial agreement on the basis for negotiations since President Carter met Sadat at Aswan in January and it is Israel, not Egypt, that must alter its positions in order to get the talks going again.

The Egyptians are expecting the United States to undertake a major effort to induce the Israelis to accept conditions and terminology that they have hitherto rejected, and believe that Atherton is here to gather information in preparation for that move.

Officials traveling with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who stopped here briefly Tuesday morning to talk with Kamel, stressed that Atherton would not be bringing specific language proposed by Washington or anything that could be called an American "peace plan." Atherton's remarks bore that out.

Cairo newspapers printed without comment yesterday reports from Jerusalem saying that Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman may return here next week.

The Egyptians have said that Weizman is welcome any time he has something new to offer, but that their agreement to receive him should not be construed as a resumption of the direct bilateral negotiations.