Taba Talks Shaken by Egyptian Plan to Take Back the Territory

Final negotiations over Taba, badly shaken by an Egyptian announcement that it would take possession of the territory this Sunday, returned to normal Thursday, after Cairo backed off.

Reuven Merhav, head of the Israeli negotiating team, called a news conference late Thursday night to report the Egyptians’ change of mind.

He said it was the result of strong Israeli opposition to the move and the Egyptians’ understanding that such unilateral action would adversely affect the talks, which are supposed to resolve the remaining issues in the Taba dispute.

The Egyptian government, nevertheless, will instruct its Ministry of Tourism to enter negotiations for the purchase of Israeli-owned tourist facilities in Taba.

After nearly a week bogged down in arguments over the agenda of the talks, the head of the Egyptian negotiating team, Nabil el-Arabi, startled and angered the Israelis Wednesday night with the statement that Egypt would formally take legal ownership of the territory and its tourist facilities on Jan. 29.

Arabi explained Thursday morning that his announcement the previous night was not a unilateral grab, but an exercise of Cairo’s right under last year’s international arbitration procedure, which awarded the disputed Taba enclave to Egypt.

He pointed out that the Nov. 29 arbitration decision, which was binding on both sides, set a 60-day deadline for Egypt’s takeover of the territory. It expires Sunday.

Israeli sources said their understanding was that the arbitration ruling merely committed Israel to “make its best effort” to resolve the Taba dispute by that date.

SETTLEMENT OF SINAI INCIDENT

The Israelis were also annoyed because the Egyptian authorities were scheduled to announce Sunday their offer of compensation to the families of six Israeli tourists gunned down in October 1985 by a demented Egyptian border policeman at Ras Burka, in Sinai.

While the Cabinet ruled out linkage between the amount of compensation and an agreement on Taba, the Israelis still want time to study the offer before the Taba talks adjourn.

Merhav, who is director general of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, said he lodged a formal protest with the Egyptians and asked the Israeli ambassador in Cairo, Shimon Shamir, to obtain “clarification” of the Egyptians’ moves.

He said the negotiations would continue, meanwhile, “under protest.”

There were no plenary sessions Wednesday. The heads of the two delegations consulted with each other and with their respective governments.

They also had regular contacts with the U.S. observer mission, headed by the State Department’s legal adviser, Abraham Sofaer.

He has been engaged in “shuttle diplomacy,” conveying the views of each side to the other while trying to edge each toward a compromise settlement.

At the American suggestion, both parties agreed to divide their delegations into three “working groups.”

VALUE ESTIMATED AT $100 MILLION

One group is dealing with technical questions and access to Taba by Israeli tourists. Another is involved with the financial aspects of transferring the territory.

A third group, composed of military liaison officers, is trying to resolve the touchy issue of where the last 185 yards of boundary are located. That was left open by the arbitrators.

Meanwhile, the overall value of tourist facilities at Taba has been estimated at $100 million.

They consist of the Avia Sonesta Hotel and the Rafi Nelson Vacation Village, the only tangible assets in the territory.

The Egyptians have indicated they have the money to pay. Israel reportedly has rejected a Saudi offer to buy the Sonesta for $50 million.

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