Israeli officials and citizens resign themselves to giving up Sinai
The western stretch of the Gulf of Aqaba is austere in its beauty: craggy purple mountains, sand flats, a ribbon of gray asphalt, and a clear, blue sea.
Along this desert coast for the past 15 years, Israel has worked, played, and projected its military might throughout the Arabian Peninsula/Red Sea region.
In six weeks, under the Camp David accords, the last Israeli will leave, giving the Sinai, back to Egypt. But Israel appears determined not to let the transaction pass without letting the world know ''the price of peace'' that Israel has paid.
Government officials, military officers, settlers - both bitter and resigned - have been giving on-the-spot briefings with the general theme of: ''Nothing was here before we came. Look at what we have accomplished. Now we will leave, and we fear it will vanish back behind the veil of the Arab world.''
What they have done in 15 years has been to make the Sinai a vacation spot for scuba divers, archeologists, campers, and naturalists. And the military has been busy as well.
From the Israeli military bases of Etzion, Eitam, and dozens of smaller outposts, Israeli specialists have ''looked down'' on Egypt and Saudi Arabia through electronic observation posts atop the rugged Sinai mountains; the desert wastes of the peninsula have provided a valuable buffer on Israel's south as well as a military ''backyard'' for Israeli training and special missions, such as the raid last year on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor.
''We are giving up a lot from a military point of view,'' Israeli Brig. Gen. Yaacov Even said recently as he looked out across the Straits of Tiran through which ships to Eilat must pass. ''It will be costly to replace this.''
Israel's military redeployment is a 10-year, $4.8 billion project. Labeled ''Operation Ramon,'' the redeployment means Israel will have to build new bases throughout the country, with the bulk of them in the Negev Desert. Military specialists say the new bases will be among the most modern in the world.
Moreover, under the Camp David agreement, Egyptian forces in the Sinai will be thinned out and will be monitored by the new Multinational Force and Observers units stationed in the Sinai. Still, several Israeli military and civilian officials contend that in strict security terms, the Camp David safeguards will not make up for the loss of Sinai.
And there is doubt in Israeli officialdom about whether the peace with Egypt will last after the last bit of Sinai is handed over on April 25. Talks in Jerusalem this week between Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin were being closely monitored throughout the country for indications of whether Egypt was really committed to other aspects of Camp David such as further normalization of relations and negotiations on Palestinian autonomy.
Mr. Ali indicated Egyptian-Israeli relations were ''very friendly and cordial'' and told reporters that there is still a chance of a trip to Israel by Egypt's Hosni Mubarak.
The immediate problem to be worked out, however, concerns the new Egypt-Israel border. There are more than a dozen spots in dispute, primary among them the border town of Rafah in the northern Sinai and the outskirts of Eilat where a luxury hotel complex is going up on what may become Egyptian territory.
Both Mr. Ali and Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon March 16 were optimistic that agreement on these points can be reached before April 25.
Not everything has been settled between the two countries, but a tour of the Sinai by this reporter in recent days indicated that the territorial exchange was going as smoothly as could be expected.
At Ophira, at the southern tip of the Sinai, settlers were packing up their belongings and slowly moving out of the modern Israeli city. Ophira spokesman Yaacov Bar Levy was anything but happy about being forced to leave his home of six years.
''Here we found and created a special way of life. There was no television, nothing unpleasant,'' Mr. Bar Levy said while standing in the Ophira community center. ''We put this place on the map of the world. Divers from all over came here because of the coral. We and other citizens brought a kind of civilization here and now we have to be kicked out. We built these things.''
There have been scattered incidents of arson in Ophira in recent days. But, though Mr. Bar Levy says residents ''will not celebrate'' the arrival of the Egyptian advance team, most residents seem resigned to leaving.
Up the coast at the holiday resort of Neviot, Moshav spokesman Zeev Rubanenko had a different understanding of what was at stake internationally and why it was necessary for him to leave: ''If we have to pay for peace, we pay.''
Mr. Rubanenko said the few remaining residents were spending their days sunning themselves, maintaining the resort facilities, and taking ''field trips'' into the mountains ''to see more of the area because this is the last time for us.''
Though most Israelis seem to feel that the southern Sinai will soon be closed to them, the Camp David agreements specify that Israelis will have continued easy access to them. But the loss of personal control of the facilities and Israeli skepticism about the future of Egyptian-Israeli relations have caused pessimism on that score.
Says a government official: ''Now that Israel has honored its commitments, the acid test of the peace process lies ahead.''