Mideast thaw begins to melt freeze on trade and travel between Jordan, Israel


AMMAN, Jordan -- For the past 45 years, the desert kingdom of Jordan has looked west and seen a curious mirage. Its effect has been powerful, making commercial airliners fly the wrong way for hundreds of miles, causing mail and phone calls to disappear into oblivion and making travelers spend days crossing a muddy old river no wider than a creek.

It has even confused mapmakers. The mapmakers here still claim in big bold letters that Jordan's western neighbor is the nation of Palestine, stretching clear to the Mediterranean Sea.

This is not some kind of Bermuda Triangle mystery. It's a more puzzling phenomenon known as Middle East foreign relations, in which most Arab nations have refused to recognize the existence of their greatest declared enemy, the state of Israel. And in Jordan, propped like a bookend against Israel and the Israeli-occupied territories, practical applications of that policy can seem especially baffling.

Wavering mirage

The territory known as the West Bank was occupied by Jordan until 1967, when the Israelis conquered the area, which helps to explain the mirage. But as the move toward peace in the Middle East gains momentum, the mirage has slowly begun to vanish here, and everybody from tour operators to airline executives likes what he or she is seeing.

"The Israeli tourists would love to come to see Petra," says Faik Bisharat, manager of Bisharat Tours in Amman. "They could travel by bus, by car. There would be a very great demand."

He might be right, especially about Petra, perhaps the most spectacular archaeological site in the Middle East -- an entire city, more than 2,000 years old, carved into the rosy stone sides of a deep gorge. Petra is such a powerful lure that Israeli teens have periodically been caught, sometimes with tragic results, trying to sneak back and forth across the border for a furtive peek.

Mr. Bisharat's excitement buttresses a major point stressed in recent weeks by peace negotiators. They've realized that not only has the long, violent standoff cost money but that it has also robbed the region of the economic strength that might emerge if the nations worked together, particularly in trade and tourism.

A moat of hostility

Victoria Khano can tell you plenty about wasted time and money.

She's head of the Amman office of Guiding Star, a travel agency that has its head office in Jerusalem. That's only about 45 miles away, but Jerusalem is hidden by the mirage. Ms. Khano can neither telephone nor send mail to the main office.

She can send a fax, but only by routing the call through a computer in London. The extra long-distance bills cost about $2,000 a month.

Phone guides at local hotels, offering instructions for how to reach every country from Algeria to Zimbabwe, don't mention Israel at all on the alphabetical lists of country dialing codes, as if it fell into the line spacing between Ireland and Italy.

It is possible to ride overland to Israel, but the experience can be almost as frustrating as trying to telephone. One of the specialties of Ms. Khano's travel business is obtaining passes for clients to cross the Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Israel over the Jordan River border.

To handle the task yourself can take two days, involving a few lengthy waits at Jordan's Interior Ministry.

"It is terrible," Ms. Khano says. "People will be here on business, spending their days in meetings, and they will be too busy and forget about it. Then they will remember, and they will have to wait and wait."

Even after getting the pass, the trip isn't easy. Getting from Amman to Jerusalem by road should be a breezy 45-minute drive. Instead, it is a many-staged journey that begins with a taxi ride down to the Jordanian border checkpoint. One then boards a bus, often accompanied by hundreds of flies.

The bus rattles across the celebrated River Jordan, which except in flood season rolls along with all the majesty of the Jones Falls, then crosses a lunar landscape of dry ravines and minefields.

Upon reaching the Israeli border checkpoint, one does a dance called the passport shuffle, asking Israeli authorities not to stamp one's passport. An Israeli stamp will brand a traveler for life as someone not welcome in Jordan, Syria or any other country that hasn't recognized Israel. These countries don't mind if that people go to Israel -- they just don't want to see any evidence in a passport. Placing their stamp in the same passport as an Israeli stamp implies recognition.

From the border post, one boards a second bus with a second group of flies, then takes a short ride to go catch a second taxi, which travels up over the hills to Jerusalem.

With all the transfers and delays, the trip often takes four hours. It can last longer if the authorities are in the wrong mood. Or the bridge might be shut down altogether for a few days and make the trip the trip impossible after all.

Roads of peace

This is why Ms. Khano and Mr. Bisharat get so excited when they hear talk of normalized relations, or when they read of Israel's plans to someday build "Roads of Peace" to Amman and other Arab capitals.

Israel's national airline, El Al, is also plotting anticipated routes to Amman, Aqaba, Petra and other sites in Jordan.

Awalha Riad of Royal Jordanian Airlines had to restrain a laugh when he heard about the Petra flight. As he points out, there's no airport at Petra, and only camels and horses can wedge their way down the long narrow gorge leading to Petra's magnificent canyon.

But Mr. Riad, an assistant vice president for the airline, is all business when you ask him about the savings that might be had if Israel ever opened its air space to his company. Royal Jordanian's flights to North Africa would be a half-hour shorter, and flights to Europe could save 10 minutes.

It might also be nice to be able to mail a letter between the two countries. For now, just try handing an envelope addressed to Tel Aviv to Jordanian postal worker Arbeida Ahmad.

"You want to send a letter where?" she says. "You can send to America, you can send to Africa or Europe. You cannot send to Israel."

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