A team of Israeli negotiators will go to Cairo this week in an effort to break the impasse with Egypt over the disputed strip of land on the border at Taba, on the Gulf of Aqaba, Israeli officials said today.
Cabinet Secretary Yosi Beilin said that the team, including the directors general of the Foreign Ministry and the prime minister's office, will be empowered to discuss "all possibilities" for resolving the dispute, which has held up normalization of relations between the two countries and has been an obstacle to Egyptian participation in the initiative for a comprehensive Middle East peace.
Beilin said the Israeli envoys will discuss with the Egyptians a compromise proposal to put the dispute before conciliation for a fixed period -- perhaps six weeks -- after which the issue would go to international arbitration, a course that the Likud faction of the "national unity" government opposes. But Beilin said the negotiators would not be empowered to make an agreement with Egypt without Cabinet approval.
In effect, the new round of talks postponed a showdown between the Labor and Likud factions over Taba, which some ministers have said could break up the government and lead to new elections.
The dispute over Taba, a 700-square-yard strip of beachfront, has gone beyond the question of territorial rights for both Israel and Egypt, and for both sides has become a symbol of the viability of the 1979 Camp David peace treaty, which returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt and brought peace between the two countries after 31 years of war.
It also has become a test of wills between the Labor Alignment and Likud factions of the government over the implementation of the coalition agreement, as well as over the questions of how far and how fast the Israeli government should move toward a comprehensive Middle East peace.
For Israel and Egypt -- and Labor and the Likud -- the dispute has become less over the border itself than over whether the permanent boundary will be decided by conciliation or arbitration, a procedural point of contention on which all sides appear intractable. Under arbitration, but not under conciliation, both sides agree beforehand to accept the decision of an outside arbitrator.
The Likud argues that Israel stands to lose in arbitration and that relations with Egypt would be soured even more than they already are. Prime Minister Shimon Peres says Egypt is implacably committed to international arbitration and Israel might as well yield on the procedural question and move to the broader issue of regional peace.
Moreover, for Peres, it is a question of prerogatives of power that strikes at the heart of the fragile coalition agreement the two parties signed when they agreed a year ago to share power and rotate the prime ministership next Sept. 14.
Some of Peres' advisers have suggested that the obstacles presented by the Likud have little to do with Taba but are designed to thwart any achievements by him in the peace process before the turnover of the premiership to Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir of the Likud.
Peres also says that it is essential that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak involve himself in the Jordanian-Palestinian peace initiative to keep it alive but that Mubarak is unlikely to participate until the Taba issue is resolved.
Shamir noted today that the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli accord dictates that disputes between the two countries be resolved by negotiation, conciliation and arbitration, in that order. He argued that since negotiations have failed, conciliation should be the next step.