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Inner Cabinet Agrees in Principle to Settle Taba Dispute with Egypt

The Inner Cabinet has agreed in principle to settle Israel’s border dispute with Egypt over Taba through binding arbitration, in the process of which conciliation will also be tried.

The formula, the key to an overall package aimed at improving Israel’s strained relations with Egypt, was vigorously pressed by Premier Shimon Peres. He prevailed at a 12-hour marathon session of the 10-man Inner Cabinet (five Labor and five Likud ministers) which began last night and ended at dawn today. Previously, the Inner Cabinet had been deadlocked.

Peres promptly telephoned President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo to inform him that the way has been cleared for arbitration, the method insisted upon by Egypt. Peres told reporters afterwards that the decision finally reached by the Cabinet’s top policy-making forum would reverse the process of deterioration in relations between Israel and Egypt.

SAVED GOVERNMENT FROM DISSOLUTION

It also apparently saved the 16-month-old Labor-Likud unity coalition government from dissolution. Peres had made clear he was prepared to end the partnership if Likud continued to balk at the formula which is a concession to Egypt but at the same time, preserves the conciliation option demanded by Likud.

Deputy Premier and Housing Minister David Levy, one of the strongest voices in Likud, also expressed satisfaction with the decision. He stressed to reporters, however, that the steadfastness of the Likud ministers ensured that what he called "safety valves" would be built into the rapprochement process with Cairo, to make sure the Egyptians live up to their part of the bargain.

He and other Likud spokesmen explained that the first eight months of the arbitration process would actually be a period of conciliation attempts during which the arbitrators would be empowered to propose compromise formulas.

They also stressed that Israel’s agreement to arbitration would have to be matched by a serious, uninterrupted process of building normal, neighborly relations between Israel and Egypt. Most important would be the return of the Egyptian Ambassador to Tel Aviv, from where he was recalled in 1982 during the Lebanon war; and genuine progress toward improving trade, tourism and cultural relations between the two nations.

TERMS OF REFERENCE TO BE DRAFTED

Cabinet Secretary Yossi Beilin explained after the meeting that Israeli and Egyptian diplomats will meet now to draft the terms of reference for the arbitrators and simultaneously work out details of normalization. He said he hoped this process would take no more than a few weeks.

The Israeli diplomats are Gen. (Res.) Avraham Tamir, Director General of the Prime Minister’s Office, and David Kimche, Director General of the Foreign Ministry. Both were involved in the earlier talks with Egypt which produced the formula adopted by the Inner Cabinet. Kimche is presently in Greece for talks and is scheduled to go on to Helsinki. The new phase of talks with Egypt will probably await his return.

EGYPT WELCOMES CABINET DECISION

A leading Egyptian politician, former Prime Minister Mustapha Khalil, told the Israel Army Radio in an interview today that Cairo viewed the latest Cabinet decision as a positive move that will be followed by an improvement in relations with Israel. Khalil, who is close to Mubarak, said the Taba dispute was the main bone of contention between the two countries and was largely responsible for the coolness between them in recent years.

Peres told reporters that the prospect of a summit meeting between himself and Mubarak was closer this morning than it was last night, when the Inner Cabinet convened for the crucial meeting.

But the Egyptian Charged’ Affaires in Tel Aviv, Mohammed Bassiouni, suggested that a summit was not yet in sight. He said, after meeting with Peres and getting the text of the Inner Cabinet’s decision, that the next step would be for the two sides to negotiate the terms of their compromise.

Although he, too, described the Cabinet decision as "positive," Bassiouni stressed that it was just a stage on the road to a comprehensive peace. Analysts noted that this was an expression that despite its continued peace with Israel, Egypt has not deserted its commitment to the Arab world to resolve the Palestinian issue.

ELEMENTS IN THE DECISION

One of the key conditions demanded by Likud and incorporated into the Cabinet decision was, in Levy’s words, the removal of the presence of terrorism in Egypt and Egypt’s ironclad commitment not to assist or encourage terrorists. Likud had demanded originally that Egypt eject Palestine Liberation Organization representatives from Cairo.

But specific reference to the PLO apparently was deleted. Peres had argued earlier that Egypt could hardly be asked to oust the PLO when the PLO maintained offices in many Western European capitals.

Levy also listed Israel’s long-standing demand that the Cairo media desist from its scathing and often crude attacks on Israel. An Israel Radio reporter’s telephone calls to Cairo this morning elicited a less than favorable response on that point. The reporter was told by Egyptian officials that the Israeli media was far from free of strong attacks on Egypt but Egypt never asked Israel to muzzle its press.

But such matters are expected to resolve themselves if, as Peres contends, a settlement over Taba will lead to a settlement of all other bilateral issues in a speedy and friendly manner. The latter was the primary aim of Peres and his Labor Party colleagues who were inclined to be flexible on arbitration. They consider Taba, a tiny sliver of beach on the Red Sea without strategic or economic value, not worth an ongoing and widening breach with Egypt.

Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir, who is Foreign Minister and Deputy Premier, held out for conciliation, with arbitration only as a last resort. Shamir argued that arbitration, because it is a quasi-legal process, would only exacerbate tensions with Egypt whereas conciliation, less formal, would not have such an effect.

The 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty provided for both processes to settle disputes that cannot be resolved by bilateral diplomacy. Arbitration is binding and both sides must agree to accept the decision of the arbitrator as final. Conciliation, essentially a compromise between rival claims, can be effective only if both parties voluntarily live up to the compromise agreements.

A MATTER OF ATTITUDE

These are essentially legalistic matters. The differences between Labor and Likud ran much deeper and were more of a philosophical nature. Labor was prepared to yield on some matters in exchange for better relations with Egypt. Likud believes in standing tough, making no concessions.

The Inner Cabinet session was reported to have been one of the stormiest between the coalition partners, marked by loud, hostile exchanges between Labor and Likud Ministers. At several junctures, the meeting was adjourned temporarily to allow tempers to cool.

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