Harold H. Saunders, seated at left, with Egyptian officers while negotiating an agreement in 1974. (UN/AP)

Harold H. Saunders, a diplomat who was at the center of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East for two decades, and who was a key participant in the Camp David Accords in 1978 — and who later took part in negotiations during the Iran hostage crisis — died March 6 at his home in McLean, Va. He was 85.

The cause was prostate cancer, said his wife, Carol Saunders.

After beginning his career at the CIA, Dr. Saunders joined the National Security Council during the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He was a top adviser on Middle East policy at the White House for more than a decade.

After joining the State Department in 1974, Dr. Saunders became part of an elite negotiating team with Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and helped mediate several Arab-Israeli agreements. In 1978, Dr. Saunders was named assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs under Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance.

That year, Dr. Saunders was among the highest-ranking participants in the sensitive three-way negotiations at Camp David among President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. During the negotiating sessions, which lasted almost two weeks, one of Dr. Saunders’s assignments was to shuttle from one party to another, relaying proposals and revisions.

Harold H. Saunders. (Kettering Foundation/Kettering Foundation)

“I became the scribe,” he said in a 1993 oral history interview with the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. “The original draft went through 22 versions. I was the keeper and recorder of each and every version.”

The Camp David Accords, as they became known, were signed at the White House on Sept. 17, 1978. Later that year, Sadat and Begin were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

“By the time Camp David concluded, I was immensely gratified by what had been achieved,” Dr. Saunders said in the interview. “There was no question that the accords were a singular accomplishment.”

The following year, the accords led to a landmark treaty normalizing relations between Egypt and Israel.

Dr. Saunders became caught up in tense negotiations in 1979 after Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking more than 60 Americans hostage. Military rescue attempts failed, but the continued diplomatic efforts of Dr. Saunders and others helped lead to the release of the hostages after 444 days, on the day that Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president in 1981.

Dr. Saunders left the State Department soon afterward but continued to be a seasoned observer of the Middle East and wrote four books on diplomacy.

“Hal was an extraordinary public servant and fervent believer in the power of diplomacy if done with will and skill,” Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert and distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington, said Wednesday. “He played a critical role in the Camp David accords and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty which remain to this day a tangible manifestation of the philosophy in which he so deeply believed.”

Harold Henry Saunders was born Dec. 27, 1930, in Philadelphia. His father was an architect.

He was a 1952 graduate of Princeton University, where he majored in English and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He was also president of his class and a varsity soccer player. He received a doctorate in American studies from Yale University in 1956.

He joined the CIA as an analyst before being detached to serve on the National Security Council. While working with Kissinger in the 1970s, Dr. Saunders was credited with coining the term “peace process.”

After the State Department, he was a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution and, for many years, was director of international affairs at the Kettering Foundation, which promotes global understanding.

His first wife, the former Barbara McGarrigle, died in 1973. Survivors include his wife of 25 years, the former Carol Jones Cruse of McLean; two children from his first marriage; a stepdaughter; and five grandchildren.

In later years, Dr. Saunders became a proponent of what he called “sustained dialogue” and founded the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue to resolve global conflicts. As a trustee at Princeton, he found that the same principles he used as a diplomat could be applied to sensitive campus discussions of race and other matters. He later launched the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network, which is in place at 15 colleges across the country.

“Dialogue is not about talking,” Dr. Saunders said in a 2011 commencement address at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. “It’s first about listening. Dialogue is one person listening deeply and carefully enough to another to be changed by what she or he hears.”