Tiny Sinai resort puts Egyptian-Israeli peace to the test

THIS has been a year for macrodiplomacy, hopeful doings on big old issues like Afghanistan and the Gulf war. But one intense effort at microdiplomacy, in the Arab-Israeli deadlock, threatens to end in a special pinch of pain. The object is Taba, about half a square mile of beach south of Eilat, on the Gulf of Aqaba. It is a cinder in the eye of peace. This speck of territory has been in bitter, subdued dispute between Israel and Egypt for more than six years. An arbitral tribunal is due to resolve it tomorrow. A Solomonic compromise seems to be ruled out. One of the parties must then accept failure. Yet it is hard to imagine either of them doing any such thing. The United States has tried to mediate. It will now seek to muffle the consequences.

The story of Taba began on April 25, 1982, the day Israel finally withdrew from Sinai under the peace treaty with Egypt. Anticipating the day, technical teams had been checking the 91 boundary markers between Rafah on the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Aqaba. Their work went smoothly until they reached No. 91 at Taba, a fallen marker that Israel asserted should properly be placed about 700 meters (765 yards) south of the position claimed by Egypt. Disturbed by this serious hitch, the US invoked the peace treaty's dispute settlement procedure: negotiation, mediation, and finally, binding arbitration. Meanwhile, nothing would change in that little area. An Israeli entrepreneur continued building a luxury hotel and one Rafi Nelson ran his Holiday Village restaurant and topless beach among the palm trees of a lovely shore. Taba remained part of Israel.

Negotiations began, but Egypt abruptly suspended them June 6 when Israel invaded Lebanon. They were never resumed. Nearly three years later, the US arranged new talks that sputtered along for several months. Egypt pressed for arbitration. A reluctant Israel preferred mediation. Troubled, however, by the coldness in the relationship with Egypt, affecting trade, tourism, and treatment in the Egyptian press as well as the prolonged absence of the Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv, then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres moved toward arbitration. In September 1986, the process began, with the verdict to come in September 1988.

Meanwhile, the US continued to search for a compromise. The Palestinian uprising last December again clouded Israeli-Egyptian relations. Judge Abraham Sofaer, counselor of the State Department, reportedly proposed a recess in the tribunal's work to allow new negotiations. Cairo told him that Egyptian sovereignty over Taba was not negotiable. Thereupon Mr. Sofaer flew to Israel several times with a proposal of his own. Israel was to acknowledge Egyptian sovereignty, receiving concessions for its tourists and in the management of the now completed hotel. Israel refused. In another plan, Sofaer is said to have proposed a kind of Panama Canal solution, with Egyptian sovereignty but Israeli jurisdiction, with joint ownership and management of the hotel. By the end of July, the American effort had run out of steam.

The Egyptians say they have offered to pay Israel for the hotel but quote Anwar Sadat as saying he would go into a joint venture with Israel anywhere but in Sinai. The fact is that this bit of beach represents a great mass of national pride in a most sensitive place at a critical time. In Israel, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who has vowed not to give up an inch of land, faces a national election. What would the extremists in his camp make of the man who ``lost Taba.'' In Egypt, President Mubarak confronts severe economic stress and the political challenge of hypernationalism in the guise of Islam. All believe that Taba is Egyptian and that without it the peace is flawed. Mr. Mubarak might not survive ``surrendering'' it to Israel.

But who really owns Taba? The 1949 Israeli-Egyptian armistice line, following the boundary between Egypt and the British Mandate of Palestine (originally drawn by Britain and the Ottoman Empire), shows Taba as part of Egypt. When Israel withdrew from Sinai to that line after the 1956 war, it pulled out of Taba. Sinai was taken again in 1967. Leaving once more in 1982, the Israelis said the old map was in error and they were rectifying the mistake by keeping Taba.

The arbitral tribunal will now rule. Many think it will favor Egypt. In either case, it will put the will to peace to an acid test.

Richard C. Hottelet is a longtime UN correspondent at CBS who writes frequently on foreign affairs.

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