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

A third reason Taba failed was the highly-charged issue of refugees. Yossi Beilin, who headed the Israeli side of the refugee talks at Taba, likes to say that Taba represented progress because the refugee issue was the one issue on which actual drafting was done. But that drafting did not resolve the future of the refugees; it dealt only with the past. This is an important and sensitive issue, for the Palestinians see the question of historic responsibility for the birth of the refugee issue in 1948 as vital to their national narrative. The focus of the drafting was the loaded question of who was responsible for triggering the Palestinian refugee problem over fifty years ago. Beilin subsequently wrote that "we were very close to an agreement concerning the story of the creation of the refugee problem, which described the Israeli approach and the Palestinian approach to the issue, and their common denominator."

Beilin has not divulged this "common denominator" formula, but his Palestinian counterpart, Nabil Sha'ath, said progress at Taba involved Israel accepting partial responsibility for the birth of the refugee problem, an assessment that Beilin has denied. But the Moratinos document notes that the Israeli side did put forward "a suggested joint narrative for the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees." This suggestion was apparently deemed insufficient by Palestinian standards, since the Moratinos document says that "no agreement was reached in an attempt to develop a historical narrative in the general text."

Harder than dealing with the past was the future. Unrestricted immigration of Palestinian refugees to the new state of Palestine was agreed at Camp David; the main issue at Taba was whether refugees were entitled to live in two states: Israel as well as Palestine. Palestinian moderate Sari Nusseibeh told an academic audience in Jerusalem in the fall of 2002 that it would be "crazy" for Israel to allow the Palestinians to immigrate to two countries. But the Palestinians usually argue that they seek only a symbolic return of Palestinian refugees to sovereign Israel. The majority would be settled in the new state of Palestine, in third countries or in the country of current residence through a variety of procedures that would minimize in practice the number of refugees. Yet this is not what the Palestinians proposed at Taba. Even Beilin admitted that no deal was reached:

"Specific sums of [compensation] money were not agreed upon, nor was the actual number of refugees which would be permitted to come to Israel. However, the distance under dispute between the parties was narrowed substantially, and the Palestinian side agreed that the number of refugees must be such that it would not damage Israel's character as a Jewish country."

It is telling that Beilin's optimist sense that a deal over the refugee issue was near has not been echoed by Arafat, Sha'ath or Moratinos. The Israeli position entering the talks was that Israel could admit 25,000 refugees as a symbolic gesture. This was not acceptable to the Palestinians. Beilin has written that he offered to admit 25,000 refugees during the first three years of a 15-year period, thereby hinting the figure could increase fivefold in the subsequent dozen years. Beilin subsequently admitted that the 15 year idea was not suggested by Barak or reached in consultation with him. Sha'ath hinted to Beilin that he wanted to bring "six figures" to Arafat, but there is no evidence to suggest that even this would have been acceptable to the "old man." A Western diplomat added: "Sha'ath told me that Abu Mazen would accept 100,000 refugees, but he said there is no indication that Arafat would accept it at all. There was no deal." Palestinian negotiating documents from Taba say that there was no modification of the Palestinian position.

As always, the key remained with Arafat, who declared: "Return is a sacred right. People are fooling themselves if they think that can be renounced in exchange for a handful of dollars", alluding to a $30 billion package. This is not just rhetoric. Arafat's struggle for Palestine predates Israel's winning the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, and his comrades-in-arms and main constituency have always been the 1948 refugees. Even a year later when interviewed on this topic, Arafat said publicly what he has said many times since Taba, that he wanted to "begin with my brothers and beloved refugees of Lebanon", making it clear that it would not end there.


The idea that the parties were on the verge of a deal at Taba is fantasy. After the talks concluded, Abu Ala'a told Al-Ayyam that "there has never before been a clearer gap in the positions of the two sides." Saeb Erekat concurred, telling the Palestinian daily Al-Quds that Taba "emphasized the size of the gap between the positions of the two sides and the depth of the disagreements, primarily on the subjects of Jerusalem and the refugees." (During Taba, Arafat's top security aide for Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, told the media the talks were "harta barta", a very derisive Arabic slang expression; he subsequently apologized for his language.)

In the two years since Taba, countless diplomatic entourages, including those from members of the Quartet, have pleaded with Arafat to compromise on several key thorny issues. He has not done so. Indeed, Arafat's own words refute the revisionism surrounding Taba, and his actions ever since confirm those words. In remarks made in Gaza three months after Taba, he rhetorically asked, "Did we miss the chance given to us in Camp David and Taba?" After ticking off possible compromise ideas floated around at the time, Arafat declared, "we didn't and will not accept such things." If Arafat had wanted to conclude a deal comparable to terms discussed at Taba in the subsequent two years, he could have stolen world attention (and won a second Nobel Peace Prize?), set in motion the collapse of the Sharon government, driven a wedge between the United States and Israel, and ended his own persona non grata status in the Oval Office. His silence speaks volumes.

As suggested above, there are two ways to view Arafat's behavior since Camp David. One is that his refusal to compromise is a bid to gain the best possible deal from Israel, and it follows that he ultimately would agree to end the conflict if the terms were right. In the meantime, his refusal to compromise on core issues is a survival mechanism at a time when intramural Palestinian politics, as usual, are fractious and potentially bloody. Many observers are sure that this view is correct, and this includes most European and many professional American diplomats. Because they are sure that this is so, these observers can, rightfully in their own minds, blame the present Israeli government for not being sufficiently accommodating in order to achieve peace.

The other way to interpret Arafat's behavior is through the prism of ideology, or, put a bit differently, by taking Arafat's professed worldview seriously. In this view, it is not accidental that Arafat never prepared his public for compromise in key areas throughout the Oslo period; it was because he never intended any real compromise. He genuinely believes in the Palestinian right of exclusive control over Jerusalem's holy sites and the right of as many refugees as wish to do so to live in Israel. He is in no hurry to end the conflict short of achieving these goals. He does not define success by what he can obtain territorially and economically, but by what he has not yielded ideologically.

In this view, therefore, the peace process has failed not because of problems of communication or misjudgment, but due to irreconcilable visions. That process has never been about classic conflict resolution, dominated by a mix of pragmatism and bargaining. From Arafat's point of view, these negotiations have functioned as a tool of a revolutionary who views the idea of splitting the difference on issues of core principle as a sin unpardonable by his ultimate judge--history. Indeed, as this point of view insists, Arafat believes that to compromise in areas such as Jerusalem and refugees would mean accepting Israel's moral legitimacy. This he will never do, and this is why Camp David and Taba had to fail.

If this second view of Arafat is correct, then peace is clearly not possible as long as he remains the leader of the Palestinians. This is the view shared by the present Israeli prime minister and the White House, and the evidence suggests that this second view is the correct one. Arafat evidently cannot bring himself to accept the Jewish right to national self-determination. He has never spoken of legitimate Jewish national rights, and he has never admitted that there ever was a Temple in Jerusalem, since doing so would admit that there are deep historic Jewish roots in the land, and that Israel is not merely a Western-concocted post-Holocaust phenomenon. It is telling that in a speech to the UN Racism conference in Durban, South Africa in September 2001, Arafat blasted Israel for practicing "apartheid" and then broadly hinted that Israel's existence was not legitimate, but the "result of the rivalry and conspiracies of the colonialist forces in the region at that time." This is why Arafat seems to think that history is his ally. In a post-Camp David whirlwind diplomatic tour, Arafat stopped in Jakarta on August 16, 2000, where Indonesia's former president, Abdurrahman Wahid, urged him to end the conflict with Israel. The reply? "Arafat confessed to me that in a hundred years, Israel will disappear. So why hurry to recognize it?"

Essay Types: Essay