DEAD SEA COAST, Jordan -- On a sultry day at the lowest spot on earth, top officials of Jordan and Israel met yesterday to pledge their nations to peace instead of war.
Israel's chief peace architect, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, flew by helicopter 10 miles across the hazy blue Dead Sea dividing Jordan and Israeli-held territory, and was greeted by Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Salam Majali.
Their handshake put a symbolic-- though not yet formal -- end to the state of war that has existed between the two nations since 1948, when Israel was born.
Jordan's King Hussein will meet Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Washington on Monday to hasten the public conciliation. Aides from the two sides began direct negotiations near the Red Sea Monday to settle water and border issues and draft a peace agreement.
"The war is behind us," Mr. Majali said at the first news conference in Jordan attended by Israeli reporters.
"It's not a matter of declaration. It's finished."
In fact Jordan and Israel have lived in relative quiet for nearly two decades, though their border remains an armed strip of bristling barbed wire and mistrust.
Leaders of the two countries have often met secretly, but they've never publicly disavowed their state of hostilities.
"I have a sense of frustration that we waited so long," acknowledged Mr. Peres. Jordan and Israel fought wars in 1948 and 1967, and Jordanian troops aided Syria in the 1973 war against Israel.
After his arrival, Mr. Peres met with Mr. Majali and U.S. Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher for about two hours.
The ministers later said that they set in motion work on a master plan to develop the Jordan Rift Valley between the two nations, set out guidelines for commerce and studied possible aviation routes.
They also said that they established a committee to study opening a border crossing for foreign tourists at the Red Sea and constructing a road linking Jordan, Israel and Egypt at the Red Sea where the three countries meet.
These mundane matters are the sort of practical steps favored by Mr. Peres, who believes economic ties will lead to a peace in the long-troubled Middle East.
"It is time for peace. The people desire it. The land needs it," said Mr. Peres upon arrival in Jordan. "The Dead Sea, silent and deep, may become a symbol of new life. The Arava desert, a domain of bloom between our two countries."
But hints of division surfaced even in the ceremonies yesterday. Mr. Majali pointedly told the Israeli minister that "the long suffering of the Palestinian people and refugees should be ended. Security cannot be achieved while millions of Palestinians are denied their legitimate and human rights."
And King Hussein, who met Mr. Christopher earlier yesterday in Amman, also publicly raised the sensitive issue of Jerusalem.
He said at a news conference at his Amman palace that "the holy sites in Jerusalem belong to the Muslim world as a whole."
Jordan has long been enmeshed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its blood feud over territory. From 1948 until 1967, the West Bank of the Jordan River -- and the Arab side of divided Jerusalem -- was controlled by Amman. Jordan lost the territory in the Six-Day War and found itself with nearly 200,000 Palestinian refugees who fled from the advancing Israelis.
In 1989, King Hussein renounced his claim on the West Bank in favor of the Palestinians.
But more than half of the people of his own country are Palestinians, and hard-line Israelis have long advocated that Jordan -- not the West Bank and Gaza -- should become the Palestinian state.
Mr. Peres disavowed that strategy yesterday: "Jordan is Jordan. Jordan is not Palestine," he said. "Do not expect to solve the Palestinian problem in Jordan."
Yesterday's historic meeting came on an anniversary marking Jordan's troubled involvement with the West Bank.
On July 20, 1951, Jordan's founder, King Abdullah, was assassinated by Muslim fanatics in Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque then under Jordanian control. Walking beside him when he was shot was his 8-year-old grandson, the current King Hussein.
"Nothing can mark his life and death more than the arrival of peace on the same day," Mr. Peres said.
"It took us 46 years to arrive at this time and place of peace and promise," he said. "Historically, we started at the same point. Politically, we are now embarking on the same destiny."
The event took place in a three-story adobe hotel, the Dead Sea Spa, set in the empty brown hills that tumble down to the Jordanian coast of the lake, misnamed a sea.
Among the grandiose projects touted by some as a product of peace is a huge canal that would bring water from the Red Sea or the Mediterranean Sea into the salty Dead Sea, perhaps bringing it to life.
But King Hussein cautioned yesterday that a full-fledged peace treaty allowing the start of such projects may take more than a month.
Still, yesterday was a moment "which historians shall cherish and poets shall relish," said Mr. Majali. It would be "recorded in the annals of history in block letters."
Jordan's quick public moves toward a peace treaty with Israel are a divorce from the strategy of joint negotiations with Syria and Lebanon, whose talks with Israel seem at a standstill.
Mr. Majali insisted yesterday that "who is to sign first or second is immaterial," and that Jordan remained committed to a "comprehensive peace" with all the parties.
Mr. Christopher will shuttle to Damascus twice this week in an attempt to move those negotiations off their current deadlock.
Yesterday's speeches and news conference were broadcast in full on Jordanian television, which is usually controlled and censored, though many Jordanians can and do watch news from Israel Television.
It also was broadcast live on Israel Television and covered by Israeli journalists.
Their reports reflected a gleeful delight at being in Jordan, long forbidden territory to Israelis.
One Israeli journalist at the news conference yesterday had been to Jordan before, but under very difficult circumstances. Jacob Edelstein, 65, had been captured by Arab League troops during the 1948 war and held for 11 months as a prisoner of war.
"This is the first day that I really see peace is real," said Mr. Edelstein, now a reporter for a right-leaning Hebrew paper. "In those days I never would have dreamed this is possible."