Egypt and Israel today cleared the way for the final withdrawal of Israel from the Sinai this April, reaching an understanding on the presence of peace-keeping forces on two islands in the Tiran Strait and signing an agreement on Egyptian compensation for Israeli property.
Both Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali and Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon hailed the outcome of the two days of negotiations.
Ali called it "a great achievement" and said the two sides had concluded "most of the questions" under discussion in 42 subcommittees of the joint withdrawal commission.
Sharon, for his part, described the negotiations as "fruitful" and agreed "most of the problems" had been resolved "in a very warm, very friendly and cooperative way."
Earlier after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Sharon had said "all the problems" had been resolved, a remark that seemed in keeping with the upbeat tone of his previous statements here.
Left for the subcommittees to resolve were the issues of border demarcation through the divided town of Rafah in the Gaza Strip and around a small plot of land at Taba near Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba.
Also yet to be decided by the two sides is the amount of compensation Egypt will pay Israel for facilities it built in the northern sector of the Sinai. But the two delegations did agree on a $16 million value for the Israeli tourist complex at Ofira at the southern tip of the Sinai.
The main accomplishment of the talks here was an "understanding" on the stationing of troops belonging to the 2,400-man multinational peace-keeping force on the uninhabited islands of Tiran and Sanafir, in the Strait of Tiran and on a procedure for Israel to reclaim property from the settlement of Yamit after the withdrawal April 25.
A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry here said Egypt had agreed that the two strategic islands were located in Zone C of the Sinai, where under the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of March 1979 both Egyptian police and an earlier envisaged U.N. peace-keeping force were to be stationed.
Instead of a U.N. presence, the two sides have agreed to a mostly American-staffed multinational force to police the peace in the Sinai, and it is this force that will be used on the two islands, to assuage Israeli concern over continuing free passage for its ships through the strait.
The islands actually belong to Saudi Arabia but have been under Egyptian control since the early 1950s. Israel has asked that they not be returned to Saudi sovereignty, but the Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman said this was an issue to be decided strictly between Egypt and Saudi Arabia and had not been discussed during the talks here.
The spokesman said Egypt had also reached an understanding with Israel during the negotiations to allow the Israelis to sort out which property they wanted to remove and which to leave in the town of Yamit after the April 25 withdrawals because of the currently "tense" situation prevailing there. Some settlers are threatening to resist evacuation.
"We will take the responsibility of guarding whatever has not been taken down there by April 25," the spokesman said, indicating Israeli officials would be allowed to return after the evacuation.
The two sides have scheduled a final meeting of the joint withdrawal committee March 15 to resolve the remaining minor issues.