Natural site for peace talks carries a legacy of reduced expectations

January 13, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

TABA, Egypt -- The activities bulletin board at the Taba Hilton offers a morning jog for guests. The announcement notes: Bring your passport.

A few dozen yards from the hotel in Taba, the morning athletes must cross the international border into Israel. By car, that requires 10 stops for searches, stamps and paperwork. Joggers, with less to hide, get through a bit faster.

The Israeli and Palestinian negotiators resumed their talks in Taba this week. They adjourned yesterday until Monday.

This is an ironic place for them to be trying to sort out their differences.

Israelis looking for omens might see it as a bad sign: Here, Israel haggled with its Arab neighbor, eventually lost, and gave back the land.

Those looking for signs of early peace might also be distressed: The negotiations over Taba took seven years, a rate of about 100 yards of beachfront per year.

"Taba maybe for us was an example not to build high expectations," said Rafi Hochman, the former mayor of Eilat, the Israeli town from which Taba was severed.

Israel and the Palestinians gathered here because it is convenient to Israel, yet on the relatively neutral ground of Egypt. They can wander off in mixed pairs, inspect the amoeba-shaped pool, stroll on the pebbly shoreline, chat beneath the gentle swish of palms.

The negotiators expect to meet here for weeks, perhaps months, to hammer out details of Israel's postponed withdrawal from Jericho and the Gaza Strip.

That withdrawal has ignited a controversy in Israel. Six years ago, similar emotions flared over the Israeli withdrawal from Taba.

"The mood at the time was, 'These Egyptians are stealing this last land. They really don't want peace,' " recalled Yigal Caspie, one of the negotiators for Israel in 1988.

The issue with Egypt then -- as with the Palestinians now -- was of working out the details after an initial peace accord was signed.

Israel made peace with Egypt in 1979, promising to return all of the Sinai Desert captured in the 1967 Six Day War. That included all the land up to the internationally recognized border.

The border was largely uncontroversial across most of the empty Sinai. But at the Red Sea, Israel claimed that the line jogged south; Egypt claimed that it met the water 750 yards further north.

In the tiny wedge of disputed territory -- less than half a square mile -- there were no residents. But there was the 10-story Avia Sonesta hotel built by an Israeli businessman in 1982 over Egyptian protests.

Beside it was a beachside bar and a few cabanas ruled over by a bearded Bohemian named Rafi Nelson -- a man who bragged of his beer intake, insisted patrons at his establishment eat with their hands and encouraged the women on the beach to sunbathe topless.

Israelis loved him and flocked to his eccentric haven. To some, giving either Rafi Nelson or the Sonesta Hotel to the Egyptians would be an act of treason.

Like many of the squabbles in the Middle East, this one acquired global import. Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat had vowed to regain "every inch" of the Sinai. His successor, Hosni Mubarak, insisted that that included Taba.

The Israelis, for their part, grumped that Egypt had practiced only a half-hearted peace after the Camp David treaty, so why should Israel do any more?

"This was an open wound on the way to normalization between the two countries," said Avraham Tamir, who headed the negotiating team for Israel. Both sides harked back to old maps and dusty surveys, but it soon became clear the Egyptians had better proof for their version of the line.

"The chances from the beginning to win were very near zero," said Mr. Tamir.

Israel agreed to submit the argument to a panel of international arbitrators, as the Camp David accords provided. The arbitrators ruled in Egypt's favor. The final agreement required Egypt to pay $37 million for the hotel and allowed Israelis to go to Egyptian Taba without getting a visa.

On March 15, 1989, the Israelis withdrew, to the huzzahs of a lone Israeli guest who waved an Israeli flag from an upper-floor window while the Egyptian flag was raised and a contingent of noisy protesters from among the 300 Israeli hotel employees who were being fired.

In Eilat, squeezed between Egypt and Jordan at the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, sentiment ran deeply against the turnover. Town officials predicted that without Taba's beach or Rafi Nelson's beatnik bar, no one would stop in Eilat.

"We were frightened they were going to develop their own tourism and take ours," said Mr. Hochman, Eilat's mayor at the time. "We were afraid they were going to open a gambling casino."

But the fears were soon eased by hassles -- and occasional arrests -- at the border, which discouraged many Israelis from crossing, and by Egypt's failure to fully develop Taba and the Sinai.

"If I were in Egypt, I would [make] Sinai a major tourist destination with special regulations" to ease border hassles and encourage visitors, Mr. Hochman said. "You could have thousands and thousands of people."

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