Revival of a long-dormant border dispute between Israel and Jordan may, paradoxically, speed up peace negotiations between them.
Once Jordan gave up its claim to the West Bank in the mid-1980s, few points of difference remained with Israel.
It is almost as if going to the history books to dig up an old dispute over boundary lines serves the function of giving Amman and Jerusalem something to agree upon before signing a peace treaty.
So confident are expectations of an eventful accord that speculation is jumping ahead to joint Israeli-Jordanian ventures, such as a canal linking the Dead Sea and the Red Sea, joint tourism projects and open borders between Eilat and Aqaba.
In a scenario reminiscent of negotiations between Egypt and Israel over the disposition of Taba, a resort town on the edge of Sinai south of Eilat, the border dispute with Jordan involves sifting through old maps and documents to establish the status-quo-ante in the Arava, years before Israel came into the world to introduce a new geographic reality.
The original border was determined in September 1922 by a British royal decree implementing the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
The border ran north from the Gulf of Eilat, at a point identical with the current border, to the junction of Israel, Jordan and Syria at the southern tip of the Golan Heights. On its way, it passed through the Arava Valley and the Dead Sea, and along the Jordan and Yarmuk rivers.
The royal decree suffered from one flaw: It failed to specify the exact lines. British royal geographers may have thought no one would care if a border ran a few yards east or west through a desert.
When Jordan won independence in 1946, it asked the British Mandate government for an exact demarcation of the border.
The British agreed but set about the task at a slow pace. It soon became evident the British Mandate was about to wind up, and the demarcation work ceased. Just over 2 miles of the 124 mile frontier had been delineated by the time thee War of Independence broke out.
Under the 1949 armistice agreement between Israel and Jordan, the border between the two countries was to be determined by the British maps. But the maps apparently revealed little.
A senior Israeli geographer who took part in the armistice talks said this week that the border at the time was demarcated with a penciled line about 1/12 of an inch thick.
Professor Moshe Braver said he advised Col. Moshe Dayan, who was to later to become chief of staff and defense minister, that this could cause trouble, since 1/12 of an inch on the map might mean 125 to 250 yards on the ground.
As a case in point, a similar margin of error in the Jerusalem area moved entire villages from one country to another. But Dayan wanted to finish the negotiations fast, and the demarcation line was left as it was – eventually causing border clashes and leaving the issue open.
During the late 1960s, when Israel was plagued with repeated incursions by Palestinian terrorists from Jordan, Israel pushed the border fence as far east as possible, away from local kibbutzim.