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Behind the Headlines: Eilat Leaders Fear Loss of Taba Could Mean Economic Disaster

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If an international arbitration panel decides to give ownership of the half-square-mile stretch of Sinai beach called Taba to Egypt instead of Israel, the economic consequences could be serious for Eilat.

Dov Sharf, senior assistant to mayor Rafi Hochman of Eilat, the Red Sea resort city less than nine miles north of Taba, explained his concern last month to a group of Jewish National Fund of America visitors to Eilat.

Sharf, a major in the Israel Defense Force reserves and former IDF liaison to the American contingent of the Multinational Force (MNF) of peace observers in Sinai, conceded that Taba holds no strategic military value.

But that is not the issue. He said Taba “is important to Israel, despite its small size, making up 20 percent of the beachfront of a town that depends on tourism for its survival.” He noted that Taba is already highly developed for tourists, while Egypt has done nothing with its 160 miles of Sinai beach front.

Hochman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that Taba is crucial to Eilat’s future prosperity. “The Egyptians got Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab and Nueiba and didn’t develop them,” he said. He added that “We have all the proof that Taba is part of Israel.”

According to Sharf, the dispute over Taba could have been avoided if Israel had taken a stronger stand when it agreed to total withdrawal from Sinai. He noted that the demarcation line between Taba and Sinai is not an international border but a cease-fire line. He pointed out that the Camp David accords stipulated that Israel and Egypt would establish an international boundary, but did not say where.

Several years of on-and-off-again negotiations failed to break the impasse and Israel only reluctantly agreed to binding arbitration. It had favored the conciliation method, also allowed by the peace treaty with Egypt, which could have yielded a compromise. Egypt insisted, however, on international arbitration as one of the conditions for returning its Ambassador to Tel Aviv last year.

“Israel has presented its case well and it has a 50 percent chance to win based solely on justice,” Sharf said. He added that although political considerations could play a role in the Taba decision, he had confidence in the arbitration panel composed of distinguished jurists from three countries.

He said that although Israel wants total vindication of its claim to Taba, a compromise decision would be a victory. But for the Egyptians, Sharf said, “Even a compromise would be a loss,” because President Mubarak couldn’t justify it to his people.

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