Open Phone and Road Links To Israel Stun Jordanians

AS soon as Israeli President Ezer Weizman completed his brief phone call to King Hussein, Jordan's international telephone circuits were completely jammed.

Stunned Jordanians could not believe that they could actually connect by phone to their families and friends in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after 27 years of separation.

``I kept on trying for six hours. Finally I got through to my family in Bethlehem and even my relatives in Shafa Amr [in Israel],'' a Jordanian woman of Palestinian descent says.

For both Jordanian supporters and opponents of peace with Israel, the normalization of relations between the two countries has been pulled off at an incredibly fast rate.

Less than a week after the signing of a historic agreement to end the state of war between the two countries, King Hussein has flown over Israel and the occupied territories, phone lines have been opened, and on Monday a road linking the Jordanian port of Aqaba to the Israeli port of Elat was opened.

``This crossing is a crossing to a just peace,'' Jordanian Crown Prince Hassan said, addressing the Jordanian people shortly after he and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin inaugurated the 55-yard ``Araba crossing.''

The first to cross was United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher, followed by 40 Spanish tourists. The prince's statement, in Arabic, seemed aimed at reassuring Jordanians that the acceleration of the normalization process will not jeopardize Jordan's quest to restore its water and territorial rights, and will not be at the expense of a comprehensive peace.

But the speed of the normalization, being personally led by King Hussein, is puzzling the staunchest supporters of the peace process. ``You cannot expect us to change overnight, we will need time to adjust, especially [since] Israel is still occupying Arab lands,'' says Samir Kadoumi, a professional photographer.

While most Jordanians appeared moved by the opening of telephone links to relatives and friends, they were cautious about other normalization steps that could eventually put them in direct contact with their longtime foes - the Israelis.

Most of the steps that have been implemented are designed to break psychological barriers and give people a glimpse of the economic dividends of peace. But Jordanians do not expect Israeli nationals to start showing up in their country in the immediate future. The Araba crossing was built to increase tourism by allowing third-country nationals to cross the border. For now, Israelis and Jordanians are not allowed to use it.

Although the opening of the road link was watched closely on television, life was normal on the streets of Aqaba and Amman. Mr. Christopher and Mr. Rabin's motorcade to the king's lush palace in Aqaba attracted little attention from Aqaba residents.

In Amman, there were mixed feelings about the fast rate of normalization. One one hand, the prospect of peace has given hope to Jordanians to have access to the West Bank, and even Israeli markets and technology. On the other hand, it has provoked a controversy over what normalization with Israel should be.

Businessmen were divided over whether they were ready to do business with Israelis. ``If I am offered an agency for [an] Israeli business company, I will take it immediately,'' says Johnnie Kasseeh, a Palestinian who recently returned from Kuwait. Mr. Kasseeh says he was tortured by the Kuwaitis after the Gulf war and he sees the Israelis as no worse than the Kuwaitis.

Shakib al-Belbeisi, a dentist, said that while he accepts normalization with Israel as the only way Jordan can assert its role in the region, he was ``not ready yet to deal with Israelis on the streets of Amman.''

The idea of normalization is opposed by many intellectuals. The Jordanian Writer's Society has vowed not to establish any cultural contacts with Israelis and to expel any writer who violates its decision.

``If we establish cultural contacts with Israeli writers we shall be giving legitimacy for Israeli occupation and practices,'' says novelist Moones al-Raaz. ``We want Israel to feel that it will remain isolated in the region until it abandons its expansionist and colonialist policies.''

But even advocates of resisting normalization could not resist calling relatives and friends across the border after decades of depending on radio programs, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and most recently extremely expensive telephone lines through third countries to communicate messages that ranged from wedding announcements to news of the deaths of loved ones.

On Monday, 10 Israeli and Jordanian war veterans met and exchanged gifts at the Araba crossing border point.

``I think that public attitude will be determined in the next weeks,'' says a Jordanian academic close to the government. ``If there was a breakthrough on territorial and water issues, then people will accept the process. If the government kept up the rate of normalization without an Israeli withdrawal, then the whole thing could backfire.''

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