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Behind the Headlines: Despite ‘it’s Not Over’ Crowd, Israel Won’t Contest Taba Ruling

“It’s not over” was the instinctive, defiant, wistful reaction in some Israeli quarters at the news last week that an international panel of arbitrators had favored Egypt in its ruling on the Taba border dispute.

These insistently hopeful Israelis clung to the fact that the five arbitrators had determined the location of only the border pillars, with the last pillar being some 990 feet from the sea.

The arbitrators themselves ruled that they were not authorized under their terms of reference to decide on the borderline beyond pillar 91, the last marker.

Rear guarders seized on this as indicating there was still some leeway, namely the area between the last pillar and the sea. The final line might yet be moved around, they argued fondly.

Perhaps, they reasoned, some of Taba’s half square mile of sand might remain in Israel’s hands — maybe even, by some geographical gymnastics and diplomatic sleight-of-hand, the luxury Avia Sonesta Hotel that is the site’s main asset.

That was the view, for instance, of Eli Papouchado, main owner of the hotel. He was backed by the Eilat town council and by a raucous demonstration of Tehiya and Likud activists, which failed to engage the interest or enthusiasm of the “beautiful people” sunbathing on the beach nearby.

Coupled with these fond and ultimately vain hopes came a slew of recriminations, mainly focused on Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and his Labor Party, as though they had conspired with Egypt to rob Israel of the tranquil beach site.

SHAMIR IS CAUTIOUS

The “it’s not over” camp incorporated a number of electioneering politicians from the parties of the right, a number of ill-informed journalists and even one adviser to the Israeli team at the arbitration. Professor Yehuda Blum, a former ambassador to the United Nations.

“Taba is not yet lost,” Blum was quoted as saying in the weekend Maariv. He spoke in Geneva, after attending the brief, formal award ceremony in Geneva’s Grand Council Chamber.

Significantly, though, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir himself and his top aide, Yosef Ben-Aharon, were cautious and reserved in their comments.

Shamir did blast Labor for forcing the Cabinet to agree to arbitration back in 1986. But, he added pointedly, “Taba will not cause a deterioration in the relations between Israel and Egypt.”

And Ben-Aharon, who has led the fight in Israel against any concession to Egypt over Taba, made it clear in his comments to the news media that he regards the area as lost, as far as sovereignty is concerned.

He and other Israeli policy makers would like now to obtain as favorable conditions as possible for future tourism from Israel to Taba, and for the hotel and other Israeli-owned property on the site.

Likud Minister-Without-Portfolio Yitzhak Modai also went on record Thursday dismissing any loose talk of challenging the arbitrators’ ruling in letter or spirit. He said the remaining issue was now commercial — to reach a fair accord regarding the property rights.

And another Israeli delegation adviser, Professor Yoram Dinstein of Tel Aviv University, opined unequivocally that “It is all over. We have lost Taba.”

CAIRO IS CONCILIATORY

On the Egyptian side, too, there has been a distinct and well-orchestrated effort not to exacerbate tension, but rather to assume, in public statements, that the arbitrators’ ruling would now be smoothly and amicably implemented.

This was the thrust of comments by Foreign Minister Esmat Abdel Meguid after his meeting with Peres in New York on Thursday night.

In Cairo, the Egyptian minister of state for foreign affairs, Dr. Butros Ghali, termed the decision “not a victory for either side, but a consolidation of the peace process.”

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry made a point on Thursday of denying that an earlier leak, threatening a crisis if Israel dragged its heels over Taba, was “not stated or authorized by any Egyptian official.”

Privately, indeed, Egypt has indicated that it would be ready to suspend the implementation process until after the Israeli election, if this would contribute to cooling the atmosphere.

The clarifications and negotiations in the weeks ahead, therefore will focus on the nuts and bolts of the transfer of sovereignty to Egypt. There will be no serious attempt to challenge that transfer itself.

To ensure that this will indeed be the way the last act unfolds — and that there will be no renewed tensions between the two countries — the United States at week’s end issued a carefully worded statement welcoming the fact that the Taba dispute had now been “amicably resolved.”

It urged the parties to implement the decision of the arbitrators fully, quickly and in good faith.

The panel of arbitrators, too, has deftly contributed to ensuring that the Taba final act passes smoothly.

RULING ON OTHER POINTS

In their written decision, while conceding that they have no authority to decide the line beyond pillar 91, they nevertheless record at some length their own view that the line should drop perpendicularly to the sea, meeting the coast at a point known as Parker Point.

This would give Egypt a tiny sliver less than it demands. Egypt argues that the borderline should continue in a straight line from pillar 90 to pillar 91 to the sea.

The United States, in discreet diplomatic communications before the formal award was announced, informed the parties that if the arbitrators gave their support to the Parker line, Washington would strongly support it too.

That line is far wide of the Sonesta Hotel, meaning the hotel and 98 percent of the Taba site would go to Egypt. Only the tiny sliver of land to the north of Parker Point would remain in Israeli hands — thereby exactly duplicating the situation that existed on the ground before June 5, 1967.

Apart from the award of the bulk of Taba to Egypt, and the finding regarding Parker Point, the panel of five jurists made the following additional adjudications:

Five small disputed points along the Sinai-Israel borderline were decided in favor of Egypt.

Four such points were decided in favor of Israel.

The larger disputed area of Ras en-Nakeb, which overlooks the Taba-Eilat region, was decided in favor of Egypt.

The Israeli member of the panel, Professor Ruth Lapidot, entered dissenting judgments on Taba and Ras en-Nakeb. The rulings on the nine small points were unanimous.

Because of the Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah holidays, JTA will not publish the Daily News Bulletin on Tuesday, Oct. 4 and Wednesday, Oct. 5. We wish our readers a Chag Sameach.

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