TABA, Disputed Sinai — The permanent residents of this contested sliver of Red Sea beachfront are evenly divided over the prospect of living under the Egyptian flag, a survey revealed Tuesday.
One said he would leave at once. The other said he wouldn't think of going.
"I wouldn't stay one day under Egyptian sovereignty," a shirtless Rafi Nelson said as he stood sipping a beer under the warm morning sun at his Taba beach club and restaurant. "It's the same reason I don't want to stay in the United States or France--I don't want to stay in any country that is not Israel."
But Eliyahu Papouchado, owner of the Sonesta Hotel next door, said he could never think of selling out. "You know, I built this hotel, and I love it."
End of poll.
There are no other citizens of Taba. Except for the Sonesta and Nelson's restaurant-club, there's nothing at all here except for a couple of border checkpoints and an army tent for the single Israeli soldier who watches over the public beach--no houses, no schools, nothing.
Yet Taba is the focus of a long-festering border dispute that has become the litmus test of Israeli-Egyptian relations.
Senior Israeli ministers finally agreed, after a marathon 12-hour session that ended early Monday, on a 14-point proposal intended to warm the "cold peace" between the two countries. The centerpiece of the plan is Israel's agreement to submit the border dispute to binding arbitration, as demanded by Egypt.
The Cabinet decision may at long last resolve the diplomatic logjam over Taba. But the day after that decision, there seemed considerably less excitement here than there was six miles up the road in the Israeli port of Eilat.
"Everyone in Eilat is crying," said cab driver Arik Rothman. "They think Taba is gone."
The respected Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Tuesday that some Eilat residents were talking about squatting at Taba or setting up an illegal settlement there to block any attempt to turn it over to Egypt.
Part of Eilat's concern may be due to nationalism, but pure economics clearly plays a part as well.
An ancient settlement mentioned several times in the Bible as "Eloth" or "Elath," the modern town of Eilat was founded in 1951. It has about 20,000 permanent residents and, at any given time, up to 10,000 tourists, including campers.
Eilat's Mayor Rafi Hochman estimated that $10 million of the $100 million that his town earns from tourism each year is generated by visitors to nearby Taba. Papouchado's five-star hotel has slightly less than 10% of the Eilat area's 4,000 available rooms, but its clientele is mostly foreign and free-spending.
Best of the Beaches
Also, Taba's public beach is arguably the best of the extremely limited selection currently in Israel's hands here at the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba.
The Jordanian border and the city of Aqaba crowd Eilat from the east. To the north is the Negev Desert. And since Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula--except for Taba--to Egypt in 1982 as part of the peace treaty with that country, the Israelis have been cut off from all but a few kilometers of beachfront extending south from Eilat to the contested border. An important Israeli port and navy yard take up much of that.
"For Eilat, Taba is 20% of our beaches," said Mayor Hochman in an interview. "It's as if you asked the mayor of New York: 'How important is 20% of New York to New York?' " Local officials contend that Israel has a solid claim to Taba, and they said that as long as the terms of reference for the arbitration are framed correctly, Israel has a good chance to win.
Accord on Free Access
As a backup, however, Hochman noted that the Israeli Cabinet decision calls for the two sides to agree in advance on free access and other rights in Taba for the country that loses the arbitration.
Papouchado, among others, has been pushing for Israeli-Egyptian development of the area. "Papo," as he is widely known here, has a foot in both camps. He is an Egyptian Jew who immigrated to Israel.
A year ago, "I came to the Israeli government and the Egyptian government, and I suggested to build a whole resort on the Taba area," Papouchado recalled. "And I also made a plan for that, a beautiful plan. I proposed we go to a joint venture. . . . I said instead of having a dispute, let's build the peace in this area."
Neither side was willing until the sovereignty issue was settled, Papouchado said, but now that they have agreed on arbitration, he thinks "maybe this time it will happen." In the meantime, he said, he's glad that the issue is finally on its way to being resolved because as long as the dispute continues, he is forbidden to expand his hotel.
Land Lease Proposed
Mayor Hochman said he has proposed to unnamed "Israeli officials" that whatever happens in the Taba dispute, Israel should try to lease from Egypt another 12 miles of Sinai beaches south of the border in order to expand its tourist business.
He sees enormous potential in the area: "The sky is the limit." The number of international flights bringing tourists to Eilat, mostly from Europe, has almost tripled in two years, he said.
"For us, it means a lot," Hochman said of that extra 12 miles of beach. "We can develop it."
But he admits that the idea faces an uphill struggle. He said he suggested it privately to one Egyptian official, whose reply was, "Arab land is not for rent."