What happened at the Taba Conference in January 2001?
In December 2000, talks were held with Israeli and Palestinian teams in Washington hosted by President Clinton who presented a bridging proposal to the parties aimed at ending the al Aqsa intifada. That proposal was taken up at marathon talks between Israeli and Palestinian delegations at the Egyptian resort of Taba between January 22 and January 28, 2001. The Clinton administration had already left office and the Bush team was not yet engaged. This was also the end of the peace process during the Barak government, and effectively the end of the entire Oslo peace process that started in Madrid in 1991. The Barak government continued to offer concessions to the Palestinians, but neither the Israeli public nor the Knesset supported these positions. Ariel Sharon’s landslide victory was only days away on February 6, 2001.
At Taba, Yasser Arafat hoped to lock the new Bush administration into the same set of proposals that had been put forth under Clinton, proposals that Arafat hoped would be a floor under any new negotiations with the Israelis. At the same time, Barak was hoping for some breakthrough that would bolster his election chances in the few weeks remaining of his term as Prime Minister.
The talks revealed that Palestinian positions had hardened since Camp David and that gaps between the two sides were larger than before. In fact, on January 28, 2001, the day after Israel made a last ditch effort to save the Peace Process by making major concessions in Taba, Yasser Arafat spoke at the Davos World Economic Forum where he delivered an anti-Israel diatribe full of misinformation, so hostile and vitriolic — calling Barak’s Israel “fascist” — that it left the international attendees stunned. Although a joint statement at the conclusion of the Taba talks said, “the sides declare that they never been closer to reaching an agreement”, no such agreement was forthcoming.
The talks were structured around four committees to discuss different aspects of the peace negotiations – Jerusalem, the refugees, territory and security.
On Jerusalem, Israeli negotiators presented to the Palestinians the idea of creating a special international regime for the “Holy Basin” — an area including the Old City and some areas outside the walls including the Mount of Olives cemetery. The Palestinians rejected the proposal, insisting on Palestinian sovereignty instead.
On territory and settlements in Judea and Samaria, the main basis for any agreement, the new maps presented by the two sides were closer than ever before to an agreed-upon borderline. Israel reduced its demands to six percent with territorial compensation that would offset about three percent, while the Palestinians proposed an Israeli annexation of approximately three percent along with a territorial compensation of the same amount. While the Israeli proposal would have given the Palestinians some 97 percent of the land area of the West Bank, there was no agreement.
In the refugees committee, at Taba the Israelis and Palestinians again took up the question ofArab refugees from Israel and the equal number of Jewish refugees forced out of Arab countries, a problem dating back to the 1948 War of Independence. One of the Israeli negotiators at Taba, Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, is quoted as saying that he and his counterpart on the Refugee Committee, Nabil Sha’ath, did in fact reach an agreement on the Palestinian right of return, one of the most difficult issues. But Abu Alaa (also known as Ahmed Korei) speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, overrode their agreement and issued a statement saying that:
- … the Palestinians insisted on the Right of Return, and Israel was the one who rejected it.
This is significant because the seeming inablility to agree on the right of return is one of the reasons many in Israel have little hope of ever reaching a settlement with the Palestinians. Given the escalating Palestinian terrorism against Israel since early 2001, Taba might have been a “last chance” that was thrown away by Abu Alaa’s ploy.
The bottom line of Taba was probably to convince Arafat that the intifada violence was a good tactic for the Palestinian Arabs. Dore Gold said in May 2001:
- During the period from September 2000 to February 2001, Arafat could have concluded that his intifada violence was working since Israel continued to negotiate under fire and proposed additional concessions at Taba even greater than the concessions previously offered at Camp David.
The violence continued, the Sharon government turned away from the Barak policy of concessions, and the peace process ground to a halt.