Arab-Israeli 'romance' plays before a beautiful backdrop: Negotiators thrash out details of Gaza-Jericho peace plan in a Red Sea resort that has become a symbol of co-existence

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The Independent Online
THE TWO men in suits, chatting under a sunshade on a Red Sea beach attracted unusual attention. Cameras were trained on them from a distance as they beamed at each other sipping orange juice, like two old friends.

Sunbathers peered from their deck-chairs, the Israeli gunboat offshore moved in closer. And even the snorklers looked up from the coral to stare. Some thought it might be a scene from a film. But what could it be called?

'It's a beautiful place among beautiful people,' said one of the 'actors', a jovial fellow, as he stepped off the set, leather scrunching on sand. 'Don't you think general?' he added, turning to his friend.

Nabil Shaath, political adviser to Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and Amnon Shahak, Israel's deputy chief of staff, were taking part in the second act of an Israeli-Palestinian romance, which opened in the icy Norwegian woods, and has now moved to the Egyptian resort of Taba, where negotiations are being held on Palestinian self-rule, starting in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank of Jericho.

Sun aside, Taba is a poignant setting. The resort knows all about negotiations, secret annexes and lines on maps. This strip of desert, less than a mile long, was the last piece of land handed back to Egypt by Israel after their peace treaty in 1979.

'Today Taba, tomorrow Palestine,' chanted Egyptians from the hills as Israel finally lowered its flag on 15 March 1989, seven years after the deadline for Israel's final withdrawal from the Sinai, which it seized in the 1967 Six-day War, along with the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights.

The bitterness of the Taba squabble is not an auspicious backdrop to the talks. If it took so long to decide about one mile, how long will it take now for the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to decide about the size of Jericho (Palestinians say 390 square kilometres; Israelis say 45) - never mind the size of 'Palestine' itself? Palestinian geographers have arrived in Taba laden with old Ottoman and Jordanian maps. Egyptians based their claims on maps dating from 1906. On the other hand, since it was handed back to Egypt, Taba has become a symbol of peaceful co-existence.

Mr Shaath and Mr Shahak are not the first 'enemies' to mingle on the Taba beach and to look out towards Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the east and Israel to the north. The Taba Hilton was built by Israel, and today 40 per cent of its clientele are still Israelis. Both Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs mix here with Egyptians, Saudi Arabians and crowds of Christian pilgrims. 'Everyone gets along here, such meeting is nothing new for us,' said Hamdi Sulieman, the beach waiter who served the two negotiators their drinks. 'The peace in Palestine will be good for us here. We want more business.'

Glaring stamps of Israeli presence have gone, such as the massive menorah, the candelabrum of Jewish ritual, which once hung in the hotel. The style is less noisy than under Israel, say Egyptian staff, and there is more shellfish on the menu. But there are Israeli wines, Arabs dance to Israeli disco music, and Israeli goods are in the shops.

Before the handover there was Barbara the Egyptian belly dancer. Now there is Ahouva, the Israeli belly dancer. Mr Suleiman said: 'The Egyptians don't think she is as good, but they like her.'

(Photograph omitted)