AMMAN, Jordan (Jun. 6)
To Israelis, the gleaming white capital of Jordan seems as far away and inaccessible as Timbuktu.
But in reality, Amman is an hour’s drive from Jerusalem — for those who are able to get there.
Since 1948, Jordan has denied entry to all Israelis and all but a handful of Diaspora Jews wishing to visit the country. For decades, those few Jews who were able to sneak in with “clean” passports (those without Israeli stamps) risked imprisonment.
Now, thanks to warming relations between Israel and Jordan, visits by Diaspora Jews could be just weeks away.
And, according to a close adviser to King Hussein, Israelis will be welcome as soon as the two countries sign a peace treaty, possibly within two years.
Last week, David Clayman, Israel director of the American Jewish Congress, traveled here to explore the possibility of bringing Diaspora Jewish tourists to the country as an add-on to AJCongress tours of Israel.
Some 300,000 Jews have visited Israel on AJCongress tours over the past 30 years.
Throughout Clayman’s three-day visit, key government officials and travel professionals expressed keen interest in opening their country to Jewish tourists, Israeli stamps and all, he said.
One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, assured Clayman that the “clean” passport rule “is not an explicit policy,” and noted that Jordan began to permit tourists with Israeli stamps to enter, albeit unofficially, several months ago.
Clayman, who had first visited Jordan in 1986 as a member of an AJCongress delegation invited by King Hussein, called last week’s visit “very important.”
“Everyone in Jordan, bar none, was interested in having us bring tour groups from Israel,” he said.
CULMINATION OF MONTHS OF QUIET TALKS
Last week’s visit culminated months of quiet negotiations between the AJCongress and Khalil Adwan, a Jordanian travel agent and unofficial emissary of the Hashemite government.
Since there are no communication links between Israel and Jordan, the American Embassy in Amman served as intermediary, facilitating a meeting between Clayman and Adwan in Jerusalem in late March to discuss the feasibility of Jewish tourism to Jordan.
Sitting in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman, whose clientele includes Western businessmen and Arab sheiks, Clayman said last week, “I made it very clear from the start that AJCongress would not even consider adding Jordan to its itinerary unless the Jordanians allowed tourists with Israeli stamps to cross into Jordan and permitted ‘double crossings,’ ” meaning that tourists can leave and return to Israel over the Allenby Bridge.
Behind closed doors, officials assured Clayman that the king will agree to these demands, perhaps as soon as next week.
“It is in the interest of the Jordanian government to enable Jews to visit,” Clayman said. “The tourist industry is important to the Jordanians, yet it is minimal at best. They realize that Jordan is not on the American tourist map at all, and they want to tap into that market.
“Another motivation — and this is only conjecture — is that the Jordanians see American Jews as an important channel for influencing U.S. policy and public opinion,” he said.
“They may want us to present their case to the American administration. They may be thinking that if we come and see their problems firsthand, we could be helpful in presenting their case both to the administration in Washington and the government in Jerusalem.”
Nonetheless, Clayman added, “there is a real measure of sincerity in the Jordanians’ desire to see this terrible conflict end, to open the doors with Israel.”
Adwan, the Jordanian emissary, couldn’t agree more. Born in the Old City of Jerusalem, where he lived until the age of 16, he is eager to promote tourism on both sides of the border.
“I’ve always thought about tourism and open borders, but it wasn’t until the signing of the peace agreement in September that I began to take the idea seriously,” Adwan said.
A frequent visitor to Israel, Adwan readily admitted that “Israel has more to offer tourists than Jordan does.
“But I see Israel and Jordan as a package, combining the beauty of, say, Jerusalem’s Old City with the wonders of Petra,” he said, referring to the ancient Nabatean city.
“That means that Jewish tourists will want to come to Jordan, and that Christian and Moslem Arabs will want to visit Israel. This will happen when there is a genuine peace.”
BOTH SIDES MUST PUT ASIDE PREJUDICES
Already, Adwan said, “things are improving. Crossing the Allenby Bridge used to be a humiliating experience. The Israelis would do a strip search and open up every single piece of luggage. Recently, they’ve introduced an X-ray machine and simply send the luggage through that.”
Clayman, who said he encountered surly Israeli border police during his own trek across the Allenby Bridge, near Jericho, agreed that Israeli border guards “must learn to treat people with more respect, period.”
For tourism to succeed, Clayman said, both sides must put aside their prejudices. “This is an Arab country with no history or experience with Jews. Even with all the rancor between Jews and Palestinians in the territories, there is as much binding us as separating us.”
As a beginning, he said, “the Jordanian press should stop publishing anti-Semitic articles and cartoons that depict Jews with long noses.”
Jews, too, must change their perceptions for this project to work, Clayman said.
Though AJCongress expects to be the first Jewish tour group to receive an official welcome from Jordan, it does not want to be the last.
“AJCongress has worked out this arrangement, and the Jordanians are still careful and wary. They don’t want to go too fast or too loud,” Clayman said. “Within the near future,” Clayman predicted, “many American Jewish tour groups will be visiting Jordan.”