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Editorial Board

Hisham Awartani

Danny Rubinstein

Sam'an Khoury

Boaz Evron

Walid Salem

Ari Rath

Zahra Khalidi

Daniel Bar-Tal

Ammar AbuZayyad

Galit Hasan-Rokem

Khaled Abu Aker

Galia Golan

Nazmi Ju'beh

Gershon Baskin

Edy Kaufman

Ata Qaymari

Benjamin Pogrund

Nafez Nazzal

Simcha Bahiri

Nadia Naser-Najjab

Dan Jacobson

Jumana Jaouni

Dan Leon

Anat Cygielman

Khuloud Khayyat Dajani

Izhak Schnell



Vol.10 No.3 2003 / Human Rights Now

Special Report

Trying to Understand the Taba Talks

An in-depth analysis of what happened at the Taba peace talks, and why they failed.

     by David Matz

From 1993 until 2000 many thought the peace process was moving toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. This began to look inevitable when Ehud Barak was decisively elected Israeli prime minister in 1999, with the declared goal of negotiating a settlement. He eventually sought a summit meeting with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat in summer 2000.

The 13-day summit at Camp David ended on July 26 with no agreement. Much angry, public finger pointing followed, and so did as many as 52 negotiating sessions between the parties in different parts of the globe. Meanwhile, Israeli settlements in the West Bank continued to increase, the Palestinian economic situation continued to deteriorate, and in September, as many had predicted, the second Intifada broke out. In late 2000, Barak called for elections to be held on February 6, 2001. Ariel Sharon emerged as Barak’s opponent, and the polls showed an increasing margin of victory for the challenger. Given Sharon’s career-long commitment to the use of military force in relations with the Arabs, his threat to remove all of Barak’s offers from the table were he to win was completely credible and widely believed.

On December 23, President Bill Clinton called representatives of both sides to his office and read them his ideas for a compromise. After a number of days, each side said it accepted the Clinton principles, with reservations. In mid-January, three weeks before the Israeli elections, the Israelis and Palestinians announced one more negotiation session, which would take place at Taba, an Egyptian resort in the Sinai. With experienced negotiators, the hard lessons of Camp David II, the Clinton compromise, and - most importantly - facing the imminence of Sharon as Israeli prime minister, if ever there was a time to seek a real deal, this was it. Facing an 18 percent gap at the polls two and a half weeks before the election, did Barak have a better political move than to come to the Israeli electorate with an agreement in hand? Though many doubted Arafat wanted any deal after Camp David II, others believed his strategy was to stretch the negotiating process until it got him the best deal he could get. Surely he would see that Taba was the end of the negotiating road, the place to make that deal.

The Taba negotiation began on Sunday evening, January 21, and ended on Saturday afternoon, January 27. At the closing press conference, the parties issued this joint statement: “The sides declare that they have never been closer to reaching an agreement and it is thus our shared belief that the remaining gaps could be bridged with the resumption of negotiations following the Israeli election.” There were 28 negotiators and professional staff at Taba, and in the course of this research I interviewed 17 of them.1,2

The Taba Talks3

Some reports in the press suggested that the idea for one more try at a full team negotiation originated with Arafat. Israeli memoirs say the idea came from the Israeli Peace Cabinet meeting of January 16, probably from Shimon Peres. Barak seems not to have given a clear mandate to the whole negotiating team, so each negotiator inferred their own. Though their recollections of how they entered the negotiation emphasizes skepticism, the evidence suggests that some actually thought a full agreement was possible, while others aimed at a “framework agreement.”

The Palestinians wondered if negotiating with a lame duck/probable election-losing prime minister was worth the effort; or worse they worried that a negotiation could expose them to making concessions that would not lead to a binding agreement. By one account, on the day before Taba began, Arafat told Abu Ala, the head of the Palestinian delegation, that if he could reach and recommend an agreement, Arafat would sign it. Abu Ala seems not to have told others in the delegation about this. The decision to negotiate was taken on January 17 and 18, and the first plenary session occurred on Sunday night, January 21. The Palestinians sent top-level negotiators who had participated in many of the prior negotiations, and a small professional staff. The Israelis sent top-level negotiators with similar experience, adding two highly pro-negotiation participants who had not represented Israel in peace negotiations under Barak. The Israelis also had a small professional staff. No one knew how long the negotiations would last.

The opening plenary on Sunday night began with ardent speeches about seizing the moment. Both sides emphasized the inevitable disasters if the negotiations should fail, the parties’ joint commitment to a two-state solution, the uniqueness of the opportunity, and the need for hard work. This was followed by some bickering about whether the Clinton principles of December 23 would be the starting point for the negotiation: The Israelis said they should be, one Palestinian said no, and another Palestinian said they could be a foundation. No resolution of this question was achieved at the plenary, but, in practice, the Clinton principles were the basis for much of the week’s negotiating. The teams then agreed that beginning Monday morning they would break into four groups, focusing on borders (including the question of settlements), Jerusalem, security and refugees. There was talk of what to do about the issue of water but, in practice, the topic was not addressed.

From Monday morning through Tuesday afternoon, numerous small conversations among people from both sides took place. In addition to the core topics, the content of the conversations included the Intifada, the Israeli election, and the health of children and grandchildren. Two chief negotiators, some staff and occasional visitors comprised the group dealing with the question of refugees that almost never ceased its work. Discussions about security were also fairly stable. Discussions about borders and settlements were conducted by staff from each side and by top negotiators. Jerusalem was apparently not discussed.

Late on Monday, Gilad Sher (Barak’s chief of staff, and one of the heads of the Israeli delegation) called Barak to report that agreements on security and borders were possible; on Tuesday evening, the Palestinian chief of staff called his office in Ramallah to ask for additional staff because an agreement on refugees was possible.

On Tuesday afternoon, two Israeli restaurant owners visiting the Palestinian town of Tulkarm were murdered. This prompted Barak to raise the question of whether to continue negotiations. Several on the team argued that the negotiations might be moving toward a historic moment, and that ending or even suspending it would destroy the momentum. Barak nevertheless decided to suspend negotiations, ordering the cabinet ministers back to Jerusalem. He left open whether the negotiations would reconvene. The Palestinian team was incredulous and angry, arguing against the loss of momentum and the historic moment.

The Palestinian team remained at Taba, as did Sher and the Israeli staff. Though there was some understanding that no negotiating was to take place in the absence of the Israeli cabinet ministers, staff consultations between the sides continued. On Wednesday evening, the Israelis initiated a dinner meeting at a restaurant south of Taba. The Israelis maintain that they declared that this was a “moment of truth” and that they urged Abu Ala to fly immediately to Arafat to determine if he was really serious about reaching an agreement. The Israelis maintain that Abu Ala declined the offer and said, “the master of the house does not want an agreement.” Abu Ala denied having said this, though he did not deny that the Israelis raised the question. No word of this meeting was uttered, and the story came out eight months later in one participant’s memoirs4. Whether this conversation occurred as the Israelis described it is important because, if it did, it helps explain why the negotiations ended.

There is little likelihood that the urbane and experienced Abu Ala would say anything as blunt or damaging as the Israelis quote him as saying. I doubt the Israeli account of the Palestinian response, but I do believe the Israelis initiated the dinner. This is important because it suggests that they saw serious progress occurring and a significant agreement as possible.

On Thursday, Barak decided to return his cabinet ministers to Taba, and negotiations resumed that day at noon. Dan Reisner (legal counsel to the Defense Ministry and a veteran of many Israeli-Palestinian negotiations) left on Friday, and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak (minister of tourism and former chief of staff) did not return from the break at all, each saying later that he saw no value in the process. The Palestinians, on the other hand, added three professional staff on Thursday. The process that resumed looked like the process on Monday-Tuesday, except that conversations about Jerusalem now became focused.

Yossi Beilin (Israeli minister of justice and lead negotiator on the refugee issue) says the mid-week break undermined the momentum generated in the first two days of negotiation, but the individual accounts of what happened from Thursday noon until Saturday noon indicate there was progress, nonetheless, on each of the four topics. On Thursday, another Israeli was killed, but after discussion between Barak and the negotiating team, the prime minister decided to let the talks go on. On Friday night, the Israelis hosted a sabbath dinner for both groups. The tone was collegial, and after dinner at least some of the participants went back to negotiating. On Saturday, the work continued until midday when there was an announcement that the negotiation was about to close.

There had been guesses about when the negotiation would end (on the coming Sunday, or Monday, or Wednesday), but most negotiators said that ending on Saturday came as a surprise. The announcement produced disappointment among some negotiators, but there does not appear to have been any harsh disagreement with the decision at the time.

A group of top negotiators from both sides gathered to prepare for the closing press conference. It was agreed they would say there had been considerable progress during the week, that they had never been so close, had run out of time, and could close the gaps after the election. Abu Ala made explicit that, on the right of refugee return, they would say the Palestinians still insisted on the right and the Israelis still refused. Both Beilin and Nabil Shaath, the lead negotiators responsible for the issue, interjected that this was not true, that they had made great progress toward resolving that issue. Abu Ala countered that it was in the interest of both sides to tell the press that no progress had been made, and Shlomo Ben-Ami (Israeli foreign minister) concurred. At the press conference the parties were amicable and collaborative, and spoke as Abu Ala and Ben Ami had decided.

As Taba ended, there was general talk about further steps. One proposal was a meeting of Barak and Arafat, before the election, to achieve an undefined breakthrough or to agree on a framework. Another suggested reconvening the negotiators after the election, with the goal of reaching agreement by April 30. Some planning toward further meetings did occur, but a bitter speech by Arafat on Sunday, January 28, in Switzerland, attacked Israel with language completely at odds with the Taba negotiations, and that marked the end of the process.

How Far Did They Get?

When I asked the negotiators: “If you had four more days in which to negotiate, could you have reached agreement on your topic?” the answer was almost uniformly positive. Yet a negotiator’s inference that an agreement was possible leaves open the possibility that he was reading the signals incorrectly, that the opposite number would change his mind, or that the other side was intentionally deceptive. And no one on either side had pulled together all the potential agreements and reviewed the entire package. Thus, even the most optimistic reading of the Taba negotiation must acknowledge the distance left to go before the reaching of an agreement.5 Though some negotiators at the beginning may have had full agreement as their goal, by mid-week the most optimistic goal was a “framework agreement.” How much detail and clarity should go into a framework was never explored, nor was the answer free of political meaning. In general, the Palestinians favored more detail, the Israelis, less.

There was nearly no discussion about the issue of when and how to end the conflict. The Palestinians wanted an end of conflict to occur officially when the main agreement was actually implemented; the Israelis wanted it to occur with the signing of the full agreement. This topic could have been broken into workable sub-questions (i.e., control of terror, what to do in the event of violation of the agreement, monitoring mechanisms) that could have allowed the signing of a framework agreement, but there is no way to gauge what four more days of negotiation would have produced.In the face of these difficulties, what can be said about how far the parties went and, more significantly, how far could they have gone?

Borders

The Palestinians had long insisted that Palestinian sovereignty must begin at the line that had divided Israel from the Arabs at the end of the 1948 war, with minor adjustments. As Israel has installed many settlements on the Palestinian side of that line, the central question to be addressed was what part of the West Bank would be retained as part of Israel. All accounts of the Taba negotiation on this issue coincide closely. The Palestinians agreed to the Israeli annexation of about 3.6 percent of the West Bank, the Israelis asked for eight percent, with two percent of that being in the form of a lease. (The Palestinians did not say “no” to the lease, but wanted to discuss it later.) Thus the parties were about 2.4 percent apart. The percentage question was another way of talking about whether the settlements would be grouped into “blocks,” thus allowing room for population growth within them, or kept smaller, limiting growth. The negotiators were sure that the remaining gap (a little more than 100 square kilometers) could be bridged in four days of work. There was agreement that the Palestinians would receive land from Israel proper, in compensation for the percentage of the West Bank ceded to Israel, but there was no agreement on how much Israeli land or where it would be (except that it would be contiguous with some portion of Palestine). The negotiators foresaw agreement on the amount of Israeli land to be ceded, but not on its location. Also still open were questions about whether the percentage figures being used included East Jerusalem or the “bridge” linking Gaza with the West Bank, and allocation of a disputed piece of land at Latrun, but both sides seemed clear that these would be resolved with a few days work.

Though the negotiations about land to remain part of Israel involved several areas, the process concerning Ma’ale Adumim illustrates some of the difficulties in pinning down where the parties were when the negotiation ended. Ma’ale Adumim is a large Israeli settlement (25,000 people) east of Jerusalem, blocking much north-south traffic for the new state of Palestine. The Palestinians were extremely fearful that the future Palestinian state would be divided by Israeli lands and roads, leaving it without a coherent land mass. Ma’ale Adumim raised this specter. At one point, the Palestinians agreed that Ma’ale Adumim would be annexed to Israel as part of the overall percentage. Israel argued for more area around the settlement, and connection to other settlements, and the Palestinians then rescinded their agreement. “Unofficially,” however, the Palestinians acknowledged that Ma’ale Adumim could be part of the annexation if the parties could work out the scope of the surrounding area. Thus, when the negotiation ended, the official Palestinian position refused Israeli annexation of Ma’ale Adumim, but, unofficially, negotiators on both sides saw the trade that would have reversed that position (access roads for the Palestinians and limited growth space for Ma’ale Adumim).

A clue supporting the negotiators’ optimism about the outcome lies in the mystery of the maps. It is acknowledged that both sides exchanged maps (altogether there were as many as three or four) indicating which Israeli settlements would remain with Israel, but only one portion of one of these maps has come to public light. The only reasonable interpretation for this secrecy is that concessions were illustrated in those maps that the conceding party would - as no overall agreement was reached - now find embarrassing. There was little discussion about Gaza, and it was generally assumed that all Israeli settlements would be removed.

Jerusalem

This topic can be considered in three parts: allocation of portions of Jerusalem to each side; administration of the city; and control of the holy places. Using the Clinton principle (Palestinians get the Arab areas, Israelis get the Jewish areas), the parties worked through the many sub-issues involved in allocating land to each side and, with the exception of a few neighborhoods, both sides felt the results were clear, even by the time the negotiation ended on Saturday.

Regarding the administration of the city, agreement was probable regarding the Palestinian view that there should be no governing unit that could infringe on the Palestinian claim to full sovereignty in its part of the city (i.e., there would be no city-wide coordinating council). There was more difference over the definition of an “open city.” The bulk of the conversation focused on whether the border between the two parts of the city would be “hard” or “soft.” The Palestinians favored the latter, with very little control between the two halves of the city. The Israelis favored the former, with more control. On this issue, the negotiators were less optimistic that an agreement could be reached in a few days.

There was less progress or optimism about the control of the holy places. The parties discussed different plans to meet the needs of both sides for the Temple Mount, the Western Wall and the Holy Basin. These included international sovereignty, divine sovereignty, divided sovereignty, ignore sovereignty, and postpone a decision. But sovereignty over holy places had too much about it that was non-rational, and clearly none of these suggestions would have succeeded even with more negotiating days at Taba. There have been some reports that the Palestinians were willing to grant Israel sovereignty over part of the Western Wall, and Barak was at first willing to grant sovereignty to the Palestinians over the Mount, but later he declined to do so. Taba ended with no optimism about a solution. In a process of fragile but careful progress, the issue of the holy places is the one obstacle that could have stymied everything.

Refugees

Many Palestinians who left Israel during the 1948 war, and their descendants, have since then had refugee status. This has generated many difficult and painful issues. On all these issues, save two, a framework agreement was drafted at Taba, though there are some differences about what exactly that agreement was. The parties agreed to a mechanism for compensating refugees, to a method for relocating them out of refugee camps and status, to an international process for accomplishing this, and to Israel’s control over which refugees could take up residence in Israel. The parties agreed to a way of presenting their different views of the refugee history, though in some accounts this led to one narrative and in some accounts to two. The method for determining the amount of compensation was still in debate, as was the question of how many Palestinians would be allowed to return to Israel. The former question could have been resolved with four or five more days of negotiation; more work was needed for the latter, and it would probably not have been resolved in four more days.

The hottest question concerning refugees was whether the Palestinians would be entitled to a right of return to the homes they came from in Israel. Though there is much debate on whether the parties did come to agreement on this, the evidence is pretty clear. The interviews, the uncontested account of the meeting that preceded the Saturday press conference, and the written record, or its absence, all point to agreement. There was a widespread unwillingness at Taba to commit agreements or even positions to writing, but this was not the case for the negotiators about refugees. They engaged in marathon drafting sessions, conducted sometimes by one side, sometimes jointly. But since Taba these documents have been assiduously kept hidden. Though there have been references to them, including a draft of one Israeli document in Le Monde6, as recently as July, 2002, Taba negotiators were making reference to Palestinian documents which would not be made public7. As with the maps, the only reasonable inference from this secrecy is that concessions were made for which the parties would now prefer not to accept responsibility. The only issue that could generate this much heat would be a Palestinian concession on the right of return. By one account, the Palestinians agreed to waive this right in return for an Israeli statement accepting at least partial responsibility for the departure of the Palestinians in 1948.

On the question of how many Palestinians might be allowed to return to Israel, the Israelis proposed in writing 25,000, and orally 40,000. The Palestinians were quoted as having said “not less than six figures.”

Security

“Security” referred to protections sought by Israel. Many of these issues had been resolved before Taba, and there were three main ones left: arms limitations for the Palestinians, border control along the Jordan, and control of airspace over Palestine. The principle of the first was determined, enough for a framework agreement; the principle of the second was still under debate (duration of Israeli presence, who would participate in the military presence), but a few more days might have worked this out; and the third was still problematic and may or may not have reached agreement, even for a framework, in a few more days.

In short, there was reason on the last day of Taba to believe that with four or five more days of negotiating, a framework agreement for most but not all issues was possible.


1 Beilin, Yossi (2001), Manual for a wounded dove. (Hebrew) Tel Aviv, Israel: Miskal-Yedioth Ahronoth Books and Chemed Books; Sher, Gilead (2001), Just beyond reach. (Hebrew) Tel Aviv, Israel: Miskal Yedioth Ahronoth Books and Chemed Books.
2 Klein, Menachem (2001), Shattering a taboo: The contacts toward a permanent status agreement in Jerusalem 1994-2001. (Hebrew) Jerusalem, Israel: The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.
3 End of a Journey, an interview with Shlomo Ben Ami. Haaretz Magazine, Sept 14, 2001; Hanan Asfour, Ben Ami’s Occupation Syndrome. Haaretz Magazine, Oct 19, 2001; Akiva Eldar, How To Solve the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Haaretz, May 29, 2001; Akiva Eldar, Sir, If You Please, Tear Down Your House, Haaretz, May 31, 2001; Ze’ev Schiff, What Was Obtained At Taba Regarding Palestinian Refugees, Haaretz, Sept 12, 2001; Akiva Eldar, Taba Document, The First Unveiling, Haaretz, Feb 14, 2002.
4 All material in this narrative comes from interviews with the negotiators and from the memoirs listed in prior footnotes. I also used the daily coverage of the Taba negotiation printed in Haaretz and The New York Times.
5 Sher, supra, note 1.
6 I also cross-checked with a report of Taba done by Miguel Moratinos, envoy of the European Union. Moratinos and his staff were at Taba but not in the negotiations; they interviewed negotiators after the sessions. The report describes the negotiators’ account of negotiating positions when Taba ended. This report has been accepted and denied by various negotiators. It appeared first in public in Haaretz, February 14, 2002.
7 Le Monde, June 6, 2001.
8 Beilin, Yossi, What Really Happened At Taba, Haaretz, July 16, 2002.

The concluding part of this article, analyzing the reasons for the failure and drawing conclusions for the future, will be published in the next issue of the PIJ.








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