Symbols precede formalities in the great rituals of the Middle East.
President Anwar Sadat of Egypt flew to Israel in 1976. Their peace treaty was agreed in 1979. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and Chairman Yasser Arafat of the PLO shook hands at the White House last year. The dotted lines were filled in only this year.
And on Monday, King Hussein of Jordan and Mr. Rabin will visit the White House together, no doubt to shake hands. That will be the great symbol of peace between these neighbors, culminating secret meetings that go back to early Zionists and members of the Hashemite family in 1919. A technical, legal state of peace must await a peace treaty, which may not be agreed in detail for weeks or even months.
This historic meeting will climax a carefully orchestrated crescendo of open contacts that began the other day in an air-conditioned tent straddling the border. After that, Israel's foreign minister Shimon Peres flew to a hotel on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea to meet Jordan's prime-and-foreign minister, Abdul Salam Majali and U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
The point was not the meeting -- King Hussein has surreptitiously met many Israeli leaders -- but its public, open quality. The entire meeting was broadcast live on Israeli and Jordanian television. Jordanian representatives came laden with investment brochures. Israeli reporters called their offices on cellular telephones. They always knew they were close neighbors, with more in common than mineral riches under the Dead Sea and water scarcity beyond it.
There is a domino effect in peace as well as war among small states. The reality of Israel's agreement with the PLO puts pressure on Jordan. Even though Israel punctiliously resists PLO attempts to make inroads on Jerusalem until a final status agreement, the undeniable fact of PLO tentacles there puts pressure on both the Vatican and Jordan to hasten their own formal recognition of Israel because of their respective aspirations regarding the Holy City.
And, similarly, the Jordanian peace-making with Israel puts pressure on Syria's President Hafez el-Assad to move forward. Hussein never before dared go too far ahead of the stronger Syrian. Now he emphasizes Jordan's sovereign right to go full speed. Mr. Peres flew from Jordan to Cairo, there to speak publicly and emphatically of peace with Syria, calling every day without it a day wasted.
Peace, like war, has its own momentum. Those who did not dare go too early now fear to be left behind. Egypt's isolation in recognition of Israel is over. With the PLO in the fold, Jordan and Syria (with Lebanon attached) are playing catch-up, after which the circle of peace between Israel and its neighbors will be complete.