In a ceremony brimming with hope, Israel and Jordan on Monday opened the first road link between the two once-warring countries, a harbinger of what their leaders hope will be a broader peace.
King Hussein of Jordan, who made the historic event possible by signing a non-belligerency pact with Israel two weeks ago, said he hoped it would produce peace between Syria and Israel, as well.Hussein, at a news conference, said Syrian President Hafez Assad was committed to peace. "You know President Assad feels the need to move ahead . . . It is our hope we will see progress on all fronts."
At the ceremony, Crown Prince Hassan, speaking in Hebrew, one of a number of remarkable developments here just north of the Red Sea, invoked the biblical injunction to "turn the valley of troubles into a gate of hope."
Up to the last minute, minefields were being cleared from the site, and guests were cautioned not to stray from the new asphalt road.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the first Israeli head of government to officially set foot on Jordanian soil, and Secretary of State Warren Christopher shared the rostrum with Hassan as some 1,000 Israelis and Jordanians sat together in wooden bleachers. They wore white baseball caps to protect them from the scorching heat.
"This is the first step on a long journey," Rabin said, as he quarreled with critics who questioned the rapid pace of Israel's deal-cutting with the Arabs. "To prevent loss and sorrow we cannot afford to wait one day longer."
A dozen Jordanian and Israeli war veterans shook hands and exchanged gifts. Two young girls, Zora Ginzburg, 10, a kibbutz child, and Nancy Tayan, 12, of Aqaba, presented shears on velvet pillows for Rabin and Hassan to cut the white ceremonial ribbon.
The border opening, which cannot be used by Israelis and Jordanians until there is a formal peace treaty, is one byproduct of the war-no-more agreement King Hussein and Rabin signed two weeks ago at the White House in Washington.
Christopher, who is in the midst of another burst of shuttle diplomacy to try to broaden the peacemaking, said the event lifts the spirits "of a wounded region by reminding it of the courage and honor, the compassion and sacrifice that two people can demonstrate in the search for peace."
Actually, Jordan and Israel have been in de facto peace since the 1967 war in which Israel drove Jordanian troops out of east Jerusalem and took control of the West Bank.
But Christopher, noting that the crossing connects the sun-kissed resorts of Aqaba and Eilat, said this "has been a place of longing, where Israelis and Jordanians could stand on the beaches and see each other but not know each other."
In a sobering note, though, Hassan, speaking in Arab and English, said the border crossing is still being negotiated. Jordan, like the other Arabs, is demanding territory from Israel and is likely to get it.
On hand for the ceremony were generals Muhamed Malkawi of Jordan and Yusef Mishlev of Israel. A sole Israeli plane flew overhead.
There was a huge sense of euphoria on the Israeli side, with virtually the entire government present and flags from both countries raised in the hot desert air.
Jordanians were more subdued. King Hussein did not attend, although he was to host a lunch for Rabin and four other Israeli leaders afterward. The country also did not raise Israeli flags.
Jordanian opposition groups, including Islamic fundamentalists, handed the government a petition Sunday saying it opposed the peace process, arguing Jordan was giving up land. Jordan used to rule east Jerusalem and the east bank.
After the speeches, the wounded from the wars or their relatives from both sides shook hands and exchanged gifts. And at the end of the ceremony, Rabin, Hassan and Christopher rode off together in a bus, waving to the dispersing crowd.
Outstanding issues between the two sides include a disputed border line and water rights. Jordan also may wait for negotiations with Syria, stuck over control of the Golan Heights, to be completed before it signs a final treaty.
Military and construction workers worked day and night over the past days, blowing up mine fields, tearing down barbed-wire fences and building roads to create the crossing just about 2 miles north of the Red Sea ports.
Another barrier between Israel and Jordan came down Sunday when President Ezer Weizman inaugurated direct phone links by calling Hussein and inviting him to Jerusalem. Last week, the king flew over Israel, and some water is being shared by the two countries.
Weizman greeted Hussein in Arabic: "Good morning, my dear majesty."
Hussein answered in English: "I am very happy indeed to have this opportunity to speak to you. I hope that we will continue to get in touch and I look forward to seeing you sometime soon."
Weizman told Hussein, "You have an open invitation to Jerusalem, within two hours takeoff time, any time."
Palestinians have been disturbed by the Jordan-Israel rapprochement, especially that Jordan's control over the holy sites in Jerusalem was reaffirmed during the Washington talks.
Leader Yasser Arafat was rebuffed in attempts to start talks on Jerusalem immediately. They are due to start within two years, along with other final status talks like settlements.
Rabin and Arafat are to meet Wednesday at the Erez crossing between the self-rule area of Gaza and Israel to discuss the ongoing implementation of their treaty.