Taba Mythchief

Taba Mythchief

Mini Teaser: The "near miss" at Taba is being widely promoted as the natural starting point for future Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. The only problem, is there was no "near miss."

by Author(s): David Makovsky

After the U.S.-led coalition routed Iraq in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, President George H.W. Bush told Congress that he would vigorously pursue the Arab-Israeli peace process. Indeed, a landmark Middle East peace conference in Madrid followed in short order, which for the first time brought Israel to the same table with all its immediate neighbors. A second U.S.-led war against Iraq will also likely be followed by a focus on the Arab-Israeli arena, for the same twin logic applies to both cases. The first part of this logic reasons that such a focus will improve America's standing with the Arabs, who believe, rightly or wrongly, that the United States has a double standard in which it seeks to redress Arab, but not Israeli, wrongdoing. But it is also driven by a judgment that an American victory will alter the regional equation, emboldening moderates and weakening extremists, and thus improve the prospects for peace.

This American impulse is likely to be strongly reinforced by other actors. In the summer of 2002 the European Union, Russia, the UN and the United States formed a "Quartet" dedicated to moving the Israeli-Palestinian process forward, and they developed a "road map" for that purpose. They have been active, too, in promoting Palestinian political reform, identified by the Bush Administration as a key to peace. They will strongly encourage at least the first rationale that argues for a more active American role to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

If such a push should come, it would be tragic were it plagued by a misleading mythology--that Israelis and Palestinians were at the verge of peace in January 2001 as they met at Taba, a tiny Egyptian resort adjoining the Israeli port city of Eilat. According to this myth, both sides had essentially agreed on the critical and difficult issues of land, refugees and the status of Jerusalem, and it was only Ariel Sharon's rise to power that prevented these discussions from coming to fruition.

This myth has wide currency in both the Arab world and in Europe. The diplomatic advisor to Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdallah, Adel Al-Jubeir, claims that at Taba "the Israelis and the Palestinians came very close to an agreement." Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak says that the talks

"could have led to a settlement, had an additional chance of a few more months been made available for negotiations. These proposals only needed some clarifications and some mutual concessions in order to crystallize a final settlement had the Israeli government had the intention to start serious negotiations with the Palestinian Authority."

France's former Foreign Minister, Hubert Védrine, notes that a viable Palestinian state needs to be created "not on the basis of the Camp David accords, which were not specific enough, but by using the terms of the subsequent negotiations at Sharm al-Sheikh and Taba." Even some Americans are taken by the myth of Taba: thus Michael Lind writes that, in contrast to earlier negotiations, the Israelis and the Palestinians at Taba "came close to agreeing on a different plan acceptable in its broad outlines to moderates on both sides."

This is just not so.

First of all, the Israeli delegation at Taba did not have the moral authority to negotiate two weeks before an election in which Prime Minister Ehud Barak was widely expected to lose in a landslide; and Israel's delegation was led by a government that had the support of only 42 of Israel's 120-member parliament. Noting the oddity of a minority government holding the most sensitive negotiations in the country's 52-year history, Israel's Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein wrote Barak a letter questioning the legitimacy of such a step. Even had a deal been reached, therefore, it is very unlikely that the Knesset would have ratified it.

But no deal was ever in prospect. Palestinian negotiators made only conditional and tactical concessions at Taba, and even these were never agreed to by the Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat. While some key Palestinian negotiators wanted a deal, no evidence suggests that Arafat himself was willing to make any concessions of real significance. Even the diplomat who has put forth the rosiest assessment of the Taba negotiations--EU Middle East peace envoy Miguel Moratinos--wrote in a document summarizing those talks (published in the February 14, 2001 Ha'aretz) that "serious gaps remain."

It is important not only to avoid misreading what happened at Taba, but to examine carefully what did and did not occur in the period just before and after it. Doing so will constitute good preparation for the next round of serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

After Camp David

The Israeli political landscape in the aftermath of the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000 featured a mix of stunned acquiescence and dizzy disbelief. Every Israeli leader since June 1967 had declared that no part of a reunited Jerusalem would be ceded to the Palestinians (or any other form of Arab sovereignty), and no one believed that any mainstream Israeli leader would offer to yield 90 percent of the West Bank to the Palestinians. Barak proposed both--and more, for Barak's Jerusalem concession included Israeli willingness to yield part of the Old City. Nonetheless, polls at the time demonstrated that about half of the Israeli public supported such concessions if they would end the decades-old conflict. Barak could consider offering such concessions because he had conditioned the public in the months leading up to Camp David that "painful compromises" would be required for peace. As a result, much of the Israeli public was simply astonished by the Palestinian refusal to accept them, or even to negotiate about them.

Two months later, with the outbreak of the so-called Al-Aqsa intifada, Israeli public opinion began to change dramatically: either the Palestinians were using violence as a tool in negotiations, or Arafat did not want peace at all. Either possibility represented a depressing revision of the hopes nurtured by the Oslo accords, but the former at least held out some hope that a deal was still possible. But which was it? It was not clear, nor was Arafat's role in the onset of the violence.

The Barak government boldly assumed the former, more optimistic assessment of Palestinian strategy and maintained its intention to negotiate despite the violence. But the latter view was strengthened when the Palestinian Authority released dozens of convicted terrorists from jail after the outbreak of violence, and when Arafat refused to publicly call a halt to that violence.

Then came the "Clinton parameters", put forward on December 23, 2000, which the Barak cabinet accepted. In other words, Israel now agreed to give up 97 percent of the West Bank, yield all but the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and concede that virtually all the Temple Mount would be exclusively Palestinian. Barak's acceptance of such terms amid continuing violence was the final blow to his political standing in Israel. But Arafat still demurred. At a meeting with Clinton on January 2, 2001, Arafat emptied the Clinton parameters of any meaning. U.S. peace envoy Dennis Ross characterized Arafat's reply as follows: "He said yes, and then he added reservations that basically meant he rejected every single one of the things that he was supposed to give." As Arafat himself said in the first sentence of his letter to Clinton, published in the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam on the day of his meeting, the President's proposals "do not meet the required conditions for a lasting peace."

Hopes for peace seemed to have gone up in smoke. Arafat turned down the President who had opened the Oval Office to him on twelve occasions, making him his most frequent foreign guest. Now this President was leaving office. Like most observers, Barak believed that, in the wake of Arafat's rejection of the Clinton parameters, any further talks were pointless. Barak was also being trounced in polls by 15-20 percent margins by a man heretofore deemed unelectable, Ariel Sharon. Even had he believed a deal possible, Barak was running out of time.

The Road to Taba

Yet the doves in the Barak cabinet, led by Shimon Peres, did not relent. Because of the Palestinian violence and the Israeli public's reaction to it, Barak was entirely dependent on the doves and on the frail hope that following their counsel would provide a last-minute breakthrough to rescue his tenure. The doves, too, threatened to desert him before election day if he did not enable a peace delegation to hold eleventh-hour talks at Taba. As Barak's own foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, later portrayed it in an October 17, 2002 Ha'aretz interview, alluding to Peres,

"there was a pistol on the table. The elections were a month away, and there was a minister who told Ehud that if he did not go to Taba they would denounce him in public for evading his duty to make peace. He had no choice but to go to a meeting for something he himself no longer believed in."

It is unclear if the doves really believed they could reach a deal at Taba, or if they were more concerned about establishing a concessionary baseline for the widely anticipated next Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon. In any event, the fact that the Palestinians did not accept the deal saved the Knesset the acute embarrassment of voting it down.

Essay Types: Essay