TEL AVIV (Jan. 18)
Israeli and Egyptian teams will begin their final round of talks on the future of Taba Thursday. But a successful outcome will depend in large measure on the resolution of another dispute with the Egyptians.
It concerns the amount of compensation Cairo is willing to pay the families of six Israeli tourists gunned down in October 1985 by a demented Egyptian policeman at Ras Burka, in Sinai.
While the Israeli Cabinet, with the exception of Industry and Trade Minister Ariel Sharon, agreed Wednesday not to link the Taba talks with the Ras Burka incident, it could prove a stumbling block if Egypt’s offer of compensation is unsatisfactory.
Cairo is expected to announce its offer Jan. 29. The Israelis insist on compensation commensurate with “acceptable international standards.”
The Egyptians are inclined to adhere to standards prevalent in Egypt, which the Israelis say would be an insult to the bereaved families and the general public.
Abraham Sofaer, legal adviser to the U.S. State Department, told Foreign Minister Moshe Arens Tuesday that after meeting with Egyptian officials in Cairo he feels there is room for “cautious optimism” that the Ras Burka dispute will be settled amicably.
Taba, a tiny strip of beach near the Israeli resort town of Eilat, was awarded to Egypt by international arbitration last year.
While Israel has accepted the decision, which is binding under international law, several issues have yet to be resolved.
FREE ACCESS AND OWNERSHIP
These include free access for Israeli tourists to Taba, without passports or visas, and a continuing Israeli interest in the Avia Sonesta, a luxury hotel built by Israelis on the Taba beach some years ago.
Egyptian law requires Egyptian ownership of the hotel. The outgoing Israeli owners are reported near an agreement with the Egyptians to purchase a 49 percent interest, with possible loans from the United States and the World Bank.
Egypt would hold the remaining 51 percent interest in the hotel. The Israelis find this preferable to total Egyptian ownership. They fear that Cairo might open a casino at the hotel that would draw tourists away from Eilat.
All of these questions are on the agenda of the talks, which open at the Avia Sonesta Thursday and are to continue for two days next week.
Although the overriding issue of sovereignty was determined by arbitration last year, both countries are sending fairly high-level negotiators to the final talks.
The Israeli team will be headed by Reuven Merhav, director general of the Foreign Ministry. It includes the assistant director general, Yitzhak Lior; legal adviser Robbie Sabel; Nimrod Barkan, head of the ministry’s Egyptian desk; and spokesman Alon Liel. An Israel Defense Force liaison unit is part of the Israeli delegation.
The 10-member Egyptian delegation will be led by the Egyptian ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Nabil el-Arabi.
A six-member U.S. delegation, led by Sofaer, will attend the talks as observers.