Under a huge banner proclaiming peace in Hebrew, Arabic and English, Israel and Jordan are signing a treaty this morning that ends 46 years of war. The 7 a.m. EDT ceremony, to be witnessed by President Clinton and 5,000 guests, is taking place on a hastily paved former minefield _ an apt metaphor for an uncertain future.
The valley surrounding the signing site, an uninhabited spot of desert just north of the Red Sea, still contains thousands of mines. The ceremony will take place on a small patch of land cleared of explosives.
Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Prime Minister Abdel Salam Majali of Jordan will sign the documents, after which thousands of balloons _ the colors of the Israeli and Jordanian flags _ will be released into the desert sky, against a backdrop of Jordan's rugged hills.
Leaving for a five-day trip to the region, Clinton sought Tuesday to prod other nations to follow the example of Israel and Jordan. "This trip is more than a celebration of another important step toward peace; it's an opportunity to pursue new steps," Clinton said in remarks apparently directed at Syria.
"Today I embark on a mission inspired by a dream of peace _ a dream as ancient as the peoples I will visit, a dream that, now, after years of struggle, has a new chance of becoming a reality," said Clinton, who arrived early today in Cairo.
Most mainstream Israelis and Jordanians view the peace treaty as a reasonable agreement filled with an implicit promise of increased trade, tourism and other economic prospects. Israel's Parliament approved the treaty overwhelmingly, 105-3, after a debate Tuesday.
Peace with Egypt 15 years ago _ the first and only other Arab nation to reconcile with the Jewish state _ meant a traumatic Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula and the difficult dismantling of Jewish settlements there.
The Israeli-Palestinian accord signed in September 1993 has moved painfully slow, punctuated by violence.
But peace with Jordan means a relatively slight exchange of land and water rights and, most importantly, normal relations between two countries that have technically been at war since Israel's establishment in 1948.
to water resolved
"We live so close, why not live together?" said Yaron Schikva, 18, who works in his father's grocery store in Zofar, Israel, a palm-dotted farming settlement of 50 families on the Israel-Jordan border.
The peace treaty will redraw the border and in the process move half of Zofar's cultivated acreage into Jordan. But Jordan will turn around and lease it back to Israel and, in theory, not affect the farms or their owners.
In turn, Jordan will receive much needed water from the resources Israel now takes from the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers.
In all, Israel will return about 150 square miles of land it captured from Jordan in the 1948 and 1967 Middle East wars.
In presenting the accord to Israel's Parliament, Prime Minister Rabin responded to anxieties by painting a vivid portrait of peace and open borders.
The 72-year-old former general spoke of truckloads of cargo moving between Israel and Jordan, of businessmen flying to Amman, the Jordanian capital, in the morning, closing a deal and being back in Jerusalem by nightfall, of families taking a day trip to Petra, the ancient city in the Jordanian desert.
Recalling his first public visit to Amman on Oct. 16, Rabin said:
"Last week we stood at night on the balcony of the king's palace in Amman, and opposite us shone the lights of Jerusalem, so near _ just a few dozen kilometers _ after 46 years of hostility that separated Amman from Jerusalem."
Although not given to emotional flourishes, Rabin turned to Isaiah 52:7 to drive home his point: "How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation."
Jordan's King Hussein also seemed eager to win Israeli hearts, choosing the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth for his first interview with a Hebrew-language newspaper. "It will be a very warm peace," he said, and promised to do everything in his power to curb terrorists.
in Israel, Syria
The rise of Muslim fundamentalism in the Middle East, and its violent impact on Israel, has profoundly divided Israeli public opinion. Some say peace treaties are a dangerous gamble because they are vulnerable to extremists. Others see the peace process as a way of diminishing the militants' appeal.
Most legislators of the opposition Likud party said they would stay away from today's ceremony, thinking it extravagant and insensitive to families who lost relatives in recent attacks, including a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv in which 22 Israelis were killed.
Also critical of the deal are the Syrians. The hard-line Baath regime in Damascus is still a long way from reaching peace with Israel and had hoped to preserve a united Arab front until comprehensive peace had been reached between Israel and all its Arab neighbors.
"We hope the Israeli government will realize the fact that without achieving peace with Syria and Lebanon, there will be no peace in the region," said Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk A'sharaa.
Referring to Jordan's leasing of land to Israel, Syrian President Hafez Assad said: "Our land is ours and we consider it heresy for any nation to lease its lands to anybody else. We told them we did not agree with them, but we shall neither support nor hamper them."
not at ceremony
The Palestinians are also less than jubilant at the signing of a treaty between Israel and Jordan and will not be represented at the ceremony. Their tensions with Jordan stretch back decades and recently have been exacerbated by competition over status and future control of Jerusalem. "(PLO leader Yasser) Arafat is your problem and ours, too," King Hussein said in an interview.
Arafat has not been invited to the ceremony and has ordered all Palestinians to boycott the event. "It is impossible to ignore an element in the region who is central to the peace process," complained Arafat adviser Ziad Abu Zayad.
According to observers neither Israel nor Jordan wanted to invite Arafat to the ceremony, where he could steal the media spotlight.
Palestinians are skeptical about the treaty, worrying that their quest for statehood will be lost in the Arab rush to reconcile with Israel. Arafat is also angry that the treaty gives Hussein custody of the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem, a city the Palestinians claim as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
The Hamas Muslim fundamentalists are dead-set against the treaty. "It endangers the Muslim and Arab world and opens the door for political, economic and cultural domination of Israel throughout the region," Hamas said Tuesday.
Clinton's Mideast trip
Itinerary for President Clinton's visit to the Mideast.
1. This morning
Cairo: Meets with President Mubarak
2. This afternoon
Aquaba, Jordan: Attends signing of peace treaty by Israeli Prime Minister Rabin and Jordanian King Hussein at Arava Passage
3. This evening
Amman, Jordan: Dinner meeting with king
4. Thursday morning
Damascus, Syria: Meets with President Assad
5. Thursday afternoon - Friday morning
Jerusalem: Addresses Knesset, meets with Rabin; visits Holocaust Museum next morning
6. Friday afternoon
Kuwait City: Visits U.S. troops, meets with Amir Sabah
7. Friday evening
Hafar al-Batin, Saudi Arabia: Meets with King Fahd