Israelis hope for a touch of normality

July 26, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- Israeli travel agent Nitza Nahmani has had a tourism brochure on Jordan in print for six months now, in anticipation of peace.

"We're only waiting for the green light, for Jordanians to issue visas to Israelis," she said yesterday.

Israeli children at border points sent balloons and kites flying toward Jordan in celebration of yesterday's official end to war between the two countries. A "peace armada" of about 40 Israeli pleasure boats on the Red Sea sailed toward Jordan's Aqaba. They were met by three Jordanian boats honking their horns.

Many Israelis now are peeking over the border at Jordan, hoping that peace will make everyday life in the Middle East easier and more comfortable for them.

They hope that yesterday's summit in Washington between Jordan's King Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin will lead to steps that could bring a touch of normality to the region, a region where even routine tasks can be bewilderingly difficult.

Making a telephone call, for example. Phone calls are not now permitted between Israel and Jordan. So when Mark Garbett, in the office of the Guiding Star travel agency in Arab East Jerusalem, wants to call his office in Amman 45 miles away, he has to route his call thousands of miles through aswitching office in London or the United States.

"It's very cumbersome, and very expensive," he said. "Now we only send one fax a day. If we could call direct, it would be more certain and faster."

Or taking off in an airplane. The Jordanian border lies just 40 miles from Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion airport, a six-minute glide for a jet airliner. But neither Jordanian nor Israeli planes can cross that line, necessitating swift turns and long detours.

On Sunday, as the first step in normalization, both countries relaxed that flight restriction. For Jordan, separated by Israel from the Mediterranean Sea, the new overflights are great. But Israeli planes cannot fly long over Jordan before meeting the restricted air space of Iraq or Saudi Arabia.

"Jordan does not lead us anywhere," acknowledged Osnat Lapido, a spokeswoman for Israel's El Al Airline. But if Saudi Arabia grants similar permission, flying time to Bombay could be cut from 7 1/2 hours to 4 1/2 hours, she said.

Land transport also could be eased considerably. President Clinton said yesterday that "it takes but a minute or two to cross the River Jordan," but he clearly has not done it recently.

Only foreigners with a passport free of Israeli stamps, or ZTC Palestinians coming from Jordan with special permission, can cross the Allenby Bridge near Jericho. But that process takes anywhere from three hours to a full day of long lines, balky bureaucracy and ever-present flies.

If the bridge were more hospitable and open to citizens of both sides, travel agents think they could revive the grand Middle East Tour that existed before wars broke up the route from Beirut to Damascus to Amman to Jordan to Cairo.

"We think this is the future," said Mr. Garbett. "Israelis are curious about being in Arab countries," agreed Haim Avissar of Jerusalem's Pelltours.

The lure of Jordan's famed 24-century-old ruins at Petra is so strong that Israeli daredevils have tried for years to sneak across the border to visit, and some have been shot in the process.

Now "it's going to be crowded with Israelis," predicted one businessman.

Another benefit of peace would be to reduce the military patrols along the 400 miles of border with Jordan. That would be a welcome development in a country where all men must serve one month a year in the Army reserves.

Other developments will take more time. A paved road could be cut connecting Egypt, Israel and Jordan at the Red Sea where tips of the countries meet, opening a new route to Muslims making their pilgrimage to Mecca.

Officials talk about jointly developing agriculture along the Jordan River valley. They are dusting off old plans to build a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.

Industrial Israel could sell much in Jordan. "The problem is, they have nothing to sell us," Eliahu Kanovsky, an economics professor, lamented in the Hebrew daily Ha'aretz.

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