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

For the Palestinians, Israel's Taba negotiators were a sort of dream team. Hawks like Rubinstein and the centrist Dan Meridor were absent; in their places were Israel's three arch-doves: Peres, Yossi Beilin and Yossi Sarid, who headed the Meretz Party to Barak's Left. Even had Peres, Beilin and Sarid not told them as much--and they did--the Palestinians knew that Israel had never before and might never again put forward such a tractable negotiating team. Yet the Palestinians still refused key reciprocal concessions at Taba.

The Palestinians had wanted Taba to begin after Clinton left office so they could flout his parameters without insulting the president of the United States at the same time. Some Palestinians also imagined that George H.W. Bush's son, George W., might reflect some of the lack of empathy toward Israel that his father sometimes appeared to project while in office. The Palestinians thought they were about to reap a political windfall. American Jews were known to be political supporters of the Democrats, and thus losers in a Bush Administration, especially given the Texan's oil industry connections. At the opening plenary session of the Taba talks on January 20, 2001, according to participants, Ahmed Qurei (Abu Ala'a) said what he subsequently told Al-Ayyam on January 29, after Taba broke up: "We refused to accept the Clinton initiative as a basis for the negotiations. The Israelis said that the Clinton proposals should be the basis, but we rejected it." Nabil Sha'ath was even more blunt at the start of the negotiations: "Clinton is a dead horse." As such, there was no agreed upon starting point for the talks.

Retrogression on the Red Sea

The negotiations at Taba were split up into working groups in a bid to resolve the remaining differences. These primarily concerned land and borders, security, refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

The committee on security hardly convened. Shlomo Yanai, a general who headed Israel's negotiating team at Camp David and Taba, told me that "on security issues, we not only made no progress, but there was retrogression. The Palestinians . . . retreated from understandings with us and President Clinton at the summit."

On the territorial issue, Ben-Ami insisted on remaining within the Clinton parameters, but quickly moved toward the upper end of the 95-97 percent zone at Palestinian insistence. He said that Israel should withdraw from 94.5 percent of the West Bank, but once one factored in swapped border areas that Israel would cede within sovereign Israel, he was approaching Clinton's upper limit. Ben-Ami's plan involved the displacement of about 45,000 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank. When Barak heard about the Ben-Ami map, he insisted that Ben-Ami rescind it, for this was a figure that exceeded what Barak and Clinton had thought the Israeli public could bear without major upheaval. The Palestinian team also drew up a map--a real accomplishment--since this was only the second such map they presented since negotiations with Israel began in earnest the previous spring. According to this map, Israel was to evacuate 130 out of 146 settlements, which would displace 100,000 to 120,000 of the 180,000 West Bank settlers--three to four times the number contemplated by Clinton and Barak.

This proposal came as a shock to the Israelis. At Camp David, the Palestinians had agreed that Israel could retain two settlement blocs that would contain the highest concentration of settlements, as well as Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. One would be Gush Etzion, an area adjacent to Bethlehem that had been inhabited by Israelis until the eve of the 1948 war, when they were wiped out by the Arab Legion and Arab irregulars. The second was Ariel, located not far from the Tel Aviv suburbs. Regarding a third settlement area adjacent to Jerusalem called Maaleh Adumim, the largest settlement in the West Bank, Palestinian negotiators had been divided. Some were prepared to view Maaleh Adumim as included in those Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem that would become Israeli, while others disagreed.

At Taba, the Palestinians had a change of heart about all this, but one that widened the gaps. They agreed that Israel could annex the settlements in these blocs but not the blocs themselves, since they did not want to include a single interspersed Palestinian village inside of Israel. In other words, Israel would have to uproot at least 100,000 people, but the Palestinians would not allow even a single Palestinian to become an Israeli citizen, let alone be forced to move. As Ben-Ami later told Ha'aretz,

"they presented a counter-map that totally eroded the three already shrunken [settlement] blocs and effectively voided the whole bloc concept of content. According to their map, only a few isolated settlements would remain, which would be dependent on thin strings of narrow access roads."

The Palestinians also retrogressed in a second manner. They argued that Efrat, Gush Etzion's main population area with several thousand inhabitants, should be eliminated. So instead of moving toward the Israelis at Taba, the Palestinians pulled back from their stated position at Camp David, as two settlement blocs became a cluster and a half.

Furthermore, the Palestinians insisted on getting Latrun--a small "no-man's land" along the armistice lines from the 1948 war. Latrun was the site of a critical battle when Jerusalem was under siege, isolated and without access to food and other essential supplies. The battle at Latrun re-opened the supply lines to the city. Today the area virtually sits on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, and near the rail line linking the two cities.

Finally, the divergence between the sides reflected itself in overall territorial ratios. As noted, the Palestinians refused to be bound by the Clinton parameters. The map they presented has been described as one in which Israel would keep 2.34 percent or 3.1 percent of the territories. Yet even this miniscule amount was not a compromise, since the Palestinians insisted that the number to be retained by Israel add to zero, with swaps of territory inside sovereign Israel making up the difference. The Palestinians justified the insistence on their getting 100 percent by citing Israel's full withdrawal from Sinai in a peace treaty with Egypt. The Barak government had agreed to the idea of providing land "swaps" inside pre-1967 Israel to boost the Palestinian percentage, but it also wanted Palestinian consideration of long-term leasing arrangements of very limited land, since it would otherwise be impossible to consolidate a Jewish settlement bloc without including Palestinian villages within it. The Palestinian response was, "yield the land first, and then we will consider."

Disagreements over land were joined by disagreements over Jerusalem. Arafat had rejected the idea at Camp David that Israel and the Palestinians would share the Temple Mount--known as Haram al-Sharif ("The Noble Sanctuary") to Muslims--and insisted on full Palestinian sovereignty. Despite this, everyone knew that dealing with the question of holy sites in Jerusalem required a creative formula. Ideas abounded during and after Camp David, including reserving sovereignty only for God. Finally, in contravention of the policy of every Israeli government since 1967 and, at the time, even in contravention of Barak, Foreign Minister Ben-Ami said he would be content if the Palestinians would merely acknowledge the Temple Mount as a site holy to Jews. He even asked Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat during talks at Bolling Air Force Base in December 2000 if he would agree to language that there would be no unilateral Palestinian archeological excavations since this place is holy to Jews. Erekat refused. Ben-Ami recalled, "Erekat said we won't excavate, but we won't write anything about the area being holy to the Jews."

Taba did not produce any documents, so exactly what happened there regarding Jerusalem is not entirely clear. The transcript drawn up by Europe's Middle East peace envoy, Miguel Moratinos, is based on subsequent talks with a few Israeli and Palestinian participants. The best Moratinos could get was that "the Israeli side understood" they had a Palestinian concession, such as sovereignty over the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. It is not stated by the Palestinian side, however. Even with the widest stretch of the Moratinos document, key explosive issues like Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem holy sites remained unresolved. As noted above, even the optimist Moratinos wrote that, overall, "serious gaps remain."

The Palestinians also rejected the idea that Israel would have sovereignty over the 480-meter Western Wall, but hinted that Israel could have sovereignty over the exposed part--about a sixth of it--which is the smaller area that the Palestinians have misdefined as the Wailing Wall. Yet this figure never made it into Moratinos' summary of the talks: "The Palestinian side acknowledged that Israel has requested to establish an affiliation to the holy parts of the Western Wall." It continues to distinguish between this and the Wailing Wall.

Finally, on the issue of Jerusalem, the basis at Camp David for negotiations regarding the Old City and the surrounding areas such as the Mount of Olives was that all this area would be a "Holy Basin" where a special regime would be enforced, and where no side would have full sovereignty. The Palestinians rejected this idea outright at Taba. Emboldened by earlier Israeli concessions, they now insisted that the entire area be under exclusive Palestinian sovereignty except for the Jewish Quarter and parts of the Wall. In a speech in Gaza three months later, Arafat declared that the Palestinians were justified in not accepting Taba since, among other factors, the Palestinians would not hold a "century of struggle" and still not obtain exclusive sovereignty over the Temple Mount area.

Essay Types: Essay