A number of observers of Middle East diplomacy still believe that a full political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is within reach. Advocates of this school of thought point to the purported breakthroughs reached during the Taba talks in January 2001. If they had a few more weeks, so they argue, an Israeli-Palestinian final-status deal could have been struck. For this reason, they assert that if Israel and the Palestinians were to re-engage diplomatically, they could reach an agreement based on the December 1999 Clinton parameters that were presented to Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams at the White House.
It is important to remember that the Taba talks were held after the parliamentary collapse of the Barak government. Thus, the Israeli negotiators did not feel constrained by coalition considerations. Critics of these negotiations felt that the negotiators had no mandate to make new proposals, especially those that might alter Israel’s long-term refusal to entertain the return of thousands of Palestinian refugees to Israel itself. Still, at the close of these talks, some Israeli participants wished to convey the impression that tremendous progress had been achieved.
The true extent of this progress can now be examined, since the notes from Taba of the European Union Special Representative to the Middle East Peace Process, Ambassador Miguel Angel Moratinos, were just published in Ha’aretz (Feb. 17, 2002), providing a glimpse of what the parties presented to one another. What is striking is that even with the most conciliatory Israeli positions ever presented at the peace table, the diplomatic gaps between Israel and the Palestinians were still totally unbridgeable. The positions of the parties on four of the main issues of negotiation are outlined below:
Territory and Borders
Israel: The Barak government adopted the Clinton parameters in order to claim annexation of Israeli settlement blocs in the territories (seeking to place 80 percent of Israeli settlers under Israeli sovereignty) and offered to swap Israeli territory in exchange.
Palestinians: Moratinos notes that there were “differences of interpretations regarding the scope and meaning of the (Clinton) parameters.” Thus, the Palestinians “did not agree that the parameters included blocs and did not accept proposals to annex blocs.” The Palestinians, as a result, even rejected Israeli sovereignty over the largest Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, just east of Jerusalem.
Conclusion: Fundamental gaps remained on territorial questions.
Israel: The Barak government accepted the Clinton principle of Israeli sovereignty over Jewish neighborhoods and Palestinian sovereignty over Palestinian neighborhoods. Yet, Israel suggested an “alternative concept” for the Old City, Mount of Olives, City of David, and Kidron Valley: This area, called “the Holy Basin,” was to have a special regime of shared rule or internationalization. Both sides admitted that the question of the Temple Mount remained unresolved.
Palestinians: Despite their stated agreement with the Clinton principle for the division of Jerusalem, the Palestinians did not unconditionally accept Israeli sovereignty over Israeli neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem, but rather were only willing to state that they were ready to discuss the matter. The Israeli side believed that the Palestinians were ready to accept Israeli sovereignty over the Jewish Quarter and part of the Armenian Quarter in the Old City, but this was not confirmed by the Palestinian side. The Palestinians insisted and won Israeli agreement to discuss Palestinian property claims in western Jerusalem as well. Palestinians acknowledged Israel’s request for an “affiliation” with the Western Wall, but did not explicitly accept Israeli sovereignty over the Western Wall. The Palestinians refer to the Western Wall as the “al-Buraq Wall,” indicating their ongoing Islamic claim to the holiest site of the Jewish people.
Conclusions: Major, unresolved gaps remained on the issue of Jerusalem.
Israel: A three-track, 15-year absorption program was suggested informally that included 25,000 refugees coming into Israel in the first three years and 40,000 over five years (orally presented). Israel sought to channel refugee absorption to three separate areas: Israel itself, Israeli territory to be provided to Palestinians in a land-swap, and family reunification.
Palestinians: The Palestinian side reiterated that refugees had the right to return to their original homes in accordance with the Palestinian interpretation of UN Resolution 194. The Palestinians did not accept the three-track concept. They refused to begin negotiating until Israel placed a formal proposal on the table. Both Palestinians and Israelis could agree on the establishment of an international fund “as a mechanism for dealing with compensation in all its aspects.”
Conclusion: No agreement reached on refugees.
Israel: The Israeli team maintained that a Palestinian state would have to be “non-militarized.” The Israeli side proposed that Israel would have “overriding control” over the airspace of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel still sought to maintain five emergency deployment locations in the Jordan Valley in order to handle external threats from the eastern front (i.e., Iraq).
Palestinians: While accepting limitations on the acquisition of arms for a Palestinian state, the Palestinian negotiators had not reached agreement with Israel over which weaponry would be limited. Palestinians were unwilling to cede overriding control of their airspace to Israel. They refused to agree to the deployment of Israeli forces on their territory, suggesting international forces instead for the Jordan Valley.
Conclusion: Major differences remained on security matters.
Implications of the Failed Taba Talks for Israel’s Present Positions
The overwhelming impression obtained from reviewing the positions of the parties at Taba is that in each of the central areas of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, huge political gaps separated the parties. Following Taba, the Israeli people elected Ariel Sharon as prime minister by an unprecedented majority, in an implicit referendum rejecting the Taba proposals. Barak’s Labor government was replaced by a national unity government that includes Likud and Labor components as well as other parties.
In addition to the ideological shift in Israel’s government, the nation has endured a year and a half of Palestinian violence and terrorism that has to alter Israeli approaches to negotiations, to take into account the new realities.
Since the Palestinians totally violated Oslo’s terms of demilitarization, it will be imperative for Israel to control the international crossings into Palestinian-controlled areas in the future in order to prevent wide-scale smuggling of weaponry. This was vividly demonstrated by Palestinian efforts to establish supply links with both Iraq and Iran — and the interception of the Karine-A weapons ship. Israel, consequently, cannot relinquish control of the Jordan Valley as previously considered by the Barak government.
Israel’s need for buffer zones to separate Palestinian-populated areas from Israeli population centers has increased. Otherwise, Israeli cities will again be within range of Palestinian small-arms fire, mortars, and Kassam 2 rockets.
Israel will not divide Jerusalem and permit an armed Palestinian presence in the Holy City that could threaten a future intifada inside Israel’s capital.
It can thus be expected that Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic gaps have widened even further since Taba. Attempts to conclude a final status agreement, even once the current violence ends, would certainly be unsuccessful. It is for this reason that the Israeli government has proposed a long-term interim agreement instead. Given recent attempts to revive the Clinton parameters for a final peace settlement, through, for example, renditions of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah’s unborn peace proposals (Henry Siegman Op-Ed, New York Times, Feb. 21, 2002), a sober understanding of the true diplomatic gaps between the parties is critical. In light of the violent aftermath of Camp David and Taba, Israel and the Palestinians can hardly afford another failed peace initiative.