This Bus Ride Hints That Peace May Be Irreversible in Mideast

Before boarding the bus for a passport check, the diminutive Israeli immigration official straps on her thick Kevlar flak jacket.

Slowly moving down the aisle, her radio crackling with traffic in Hebrew, she inspects the identities of these passengers traveling from Jordan to Israel on a direct bus link: Jordanians, Israeli Palestinians, and other Arab travelers, many of them entering Israel for the first time since the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.

In line with the peace agreement signed between Jordan and Israel in October 1994, this route opened June 9. The buses now directly connect cities in Jordan and Israel for the first time in decades.

But this further sign of peace between Arabs and Israelis has greater significance, because it began operating just days after the Israel election victory of Benjamin Netanyahu, who has vowed as prime minister to reevaluate Israel's commitments to the Middle East peace process.

Arab nations are meeting later this week in Cairo for their first regional summit since the Gulf war, in an attempt to muster a unified call for Israel to keep promises made by the outgoing Labor government.

Still unresolved in the peace process are questions of Syria's claim to the Golan Heights, the status of Jerusalem, and a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank. Despite the hard-line rhetoric of Mr. Netanyahu and senior officials of his Likud party, on the ground there appears to be a momentum for peace that many - at least on this bus - find irreversible.

Still, the journey is not routine. Passengers alight and enter an air-conditioned room where all baggage is X-rayed and hand searched. Behind the walk-through X-ray is a mural labeled "PEACE" that depicts blue and pink doves.

Behind the veneer of trust, however, is lingering suspicion. Worried that terrorists or militant Palestinians might use the bus to import weapons or explosives, which have been used in bomb attacks and sporadic killings to disrupt the peace process since February, Israeli security officers check the bus thoroughly for bombs.

Despite the attacks - and high-level political gamesmanship - on the ground the momentum for peace continues.

"We must erase the word 'enemy' from our dictionaries," says Atif Khaldi, an Israeli Palestinian writer on the bus who is visiting Jordan for the first time.

"We need the peace process. People can pray at home, or in the mosque or the synagogue, but they must be human beings on the streets," he says. "In their minds and hearts, everyone wants peace. It is only the line from politicians that divides people." Mr. Netanyahu's combative comments about stalling peace with Arab states, he says, are "just words" meant to "feed the fanatics." But peace is "irreversible."

The bus route opened with fanfare on both sides of the border. Though Israeli buses have yet to cross regularly to Jordan - they are expected to begin soon - a new destination sign at Tel Aviv's bus terminal is confidently labeled "Amman."

The English-language Jerusalem Post and Jordan Times ran front-page pictures on the first day of the service showing a Jordanian man offering candies to an Israeli family upon arrival in Amman.

But sharing those front pages were stories that contrasted sharply with this optimistic image. The Post headlined "Clinton tells Arabs, give Netanyahu a chance"; the Times proclaimed "Palestinians want freezing of Arab contacts with Israel."

On arrival in Amman of the first bus, Israel's ambassador to Jordan, Shimon Shamir, reportedly said, "This is perhaps the most important step because it serves the people and will help convert the peace between governments into peace between the peoples."

For Ratib Said, a Palestinian chicken and cow farmer who fled the Israeli advance across the West Bank in 1967 to Jordan, the bus ride was his first time back.

His face weathered by years under the relentless sun of the Holy Land, he is dressed smartly in a suit and tie for the journey. And as the bus arrived, curious Israeli motorists stare at its Jordan license plates.

"I am coming to see my roots," he says. "I come with a lot of confidence, because I am eager to see my country." Looking at the passing green fields of northern Israel, he says lasting peace is in divine hands.

"The future will tell about Netanyahu and the peace process," he says. "If things are going to be effective for human beings, then God will help it. If not, God will stop it."

For Fatmi Hosni al-Batch, however, a Jerusalem-born mother, politicians will have the final say.

Over time, she says, they will relent, and Israel will allow formation of a Palestinian state. "In the beginning, Israel said there could be no peace with Arabs, but it happened," she says. "I'm very optimistic."

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