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An ‘eyewitness to History': UJA Mission Crosses the Allenby

About 100 top donors to the United Jewish Appeal visited Jordan this week, marking the first visit by an American Jewish group since Israel and Jordan last month declared an official end to 46 years of war.

Summing up the sentiments of many on this unprecedented mission, Felicia Weber, a delegation member from Atlanta, said: “To be an eyewitness to history being made, and seeing peace on the horizon, is like being part of a dream.”

The delegation was hosted Wednesday morning by Jordan’s Crown Prince Hassan, who told the participants that Israel and Jordan must make peace between them to improve the “lot in life” of the “common man.”

At the breakfast meeting, the prince praised the recent dramatic breakthroughs in relations between the two countries, saying, “they have surpassed expectations.”

But he stressed that a lasting peace depends on “cutting through the rhetoric of politicians,” and building an infrastructure for regional development, industry and a prosperity that is shared by all.

“This is a region which has been in the wilderness in terms of institution building,” the prince said. “I hope to move ahead of passions and think soberly of practicalities of building the future.”

Hassan called for the two countries to sit together and devise a joint strategy for the international economic summit planned for October in Casablanca, Morocco, to promote development in the Middle East.

The prince made the remarks to a group of nearly 100 top donors to the United Jewish Appeal, many of whom are major business executives, who were in the region as part of the annual Prime Minister’s Mission.

Participants in the Prime Minister’s Mission make a minimum contribution of $100,000 to UJA/Federation’s annual campaign plus an additional gift to Operation Exodus for the resettlement of immigrants in Israel.

PRINCE HEDGES ON PALESTINIAN STATEHOOD

Joining them was another UJA group from Boston, which included Steven Grossman, president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Also at the breakfast were Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Salam al-Majali, the ministers of finance, information and transport, and other top royal aides.

Hassan was warm, good-humored and relaxed as he spent nearly two hours with the group, flanked by Grossman on one side, and Richard Pearlstone, national chairman of UJA, on the other.

In his speech, the prince acknowledged that the autonomy agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization was a surprise, saying, “We were all playing catch-up.”

But he emphasized that Jordan’s support for Palestinian rights and “struggle for identity” is “total.”

While he implied he backed Palestinian statehood, the prince hedged on an overt endorsement.

“Let us see what evolves in the next two years,” he said. “The last three weeks have been dramatic enough.”

Hassan referred subtly to Jordan’s claim to Jerusalem’s holy places, saying it “would be very difficult to envision” the upcoming celebration of Jerusalem’s 3,000th anniversary without the participation of the three monotheistic religions.

And he stressed that Syria is an integral part of the regional peace process.

“We can’t afford to think there are any wild cards out there when we think about peacemaking comprehensively,” he said.

Members of the mission left Jerusalem on Tuesday morning in three buses, which got rerouted at an Israeli military checkpoint outside of Jericho before crossing the Allenby Bridge into Jordan.

“It’s overwhelming to be part of such a historic time,” said Arthur Schechter, a member of the mission from Houston.

“Who’d have thought I’d be shaking hands with King Hussein in Washington one week and having breakfast with Prince Hassan in Amman the next?” he said. “It makes you very optimistic about the peace process.”

‘MAYBE WE CAN HELP BE A CATALYST’

The delegation had earlier visited Morocco, where members were accorded what they described as extraordinary hospitality by King Hassan II, including a reception at the summer palace and round-the-clock security by dozens of royal guards.

The visit also received front-page coverage, replete with pictures, in the Moroccan press.

Pearlstone said the special attention given the Prime Minister’s Mission in both Morocco and Jordan reflected the belief of Arab leaders that the American Jewish community has the kind of connections that can help promote peace and a strong regional economy.

“Maybe we can help be a catalyst,” he said. “Some of our leaders do bring to bear a political power that can only help the peace process.”

“Jews in America can do an awful lot (to) build bridges — economic and social, and even as tourists,” said Brian Lurie, executive vice president of UJA.

Pearlstone, meanwhile, applauded what he described as the Jordanian prince’s “nuts-and-bolts approach, because that’s what it takes to make peace,” he said.

He also said he was overwhelmed by the warmth shown by the Muslim Arabs to the group. “We’ve all had these misconceptions, but like (Morocco’s) King Hassan II said, ‘We all come from Abraham.'”

Prince Hassan and other Jordanians “have displayed a great deal of courage over these past few weeks, and the support Jordan has received from the president and the Congress has been significant,” Grossman said.

“We look forward to tangible progress and a peace treaty,” he added.

Grossman said the prince’s most important point to the group was “that economic development and regional interdependency are the linchpin that will secure peace in this region for generations to come.”

In a sign of the changing times, the breakfast meeting was open to several members of the Jordanian and international press.

“These are important Jewish organizations,” said Ayman al-Saladi, a reporter with the Jordan Times. “It can only help for us to get together and communicate and explore our views about the peace process. It can only help increase understanding between us.

“A lot of news we have of each other reflects bias and propaganda that went hand in hand with the conflict,” he continued. “Now is a good opportunity to break some of the barriers and know each other for what we really are.”

Still, Saladi cautioned, peace would take time.

‘WE HAVE TO SEE REAL RESULTS’

“You can’t get over years of conflict overnight,” he said. “It’s a gradual process. Now there’s euphoria, but down the road we have to see real results to be willing to put (the conflict) behind us.”

Michel Hamarneh, the prince’s aide, echoed similar sentiments.

“On the East Bank, we must take it step by step. After 46 years of enmity, you can’t press a button” and expect everything to change, Hamarneh said.

Still, he said he believes people are ready for peace. “People don’t have to love each other, but they have to learn to live together.”

After arriving in Jordan on Tuesday morning, most of the mission delegates continued, accompanied by a police escort, almost 200 miles south on the desert highway to Petra, the capital of the ancient Nabatean city whose rose-red sculpted mountains are the stuff of songs and legends and lure tourists from around the world.

“Crossing the Allenby Bridge was very historic for me and the leadership of the American Jewish community,” said Darell Friedman, president of the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.

“All these years, those of us in the Diaspora have wanted peace so desperately in the region,” Friedman said.

By “taking this ride into a country at war with Israel for so long, and touching and seeing and talking to the people, we were part of history,” he said.

Pearlstone and the other mission organizers said UJA’s meetings with Arab leaders reflect a responsiveness to changes in Israel and the region.

“We’re showing we’re relevant to where Israel is going,” he said, adding that UJA’s fundraising campaign “is changing to adjust to the new reality.”

“We’re not negotiating for Israel,” Lurie said. “We’re following Israel’s lead and trying to be constructive.”

Lurie recalled last year’s Prime Minister’s Mission, which was dedicated to regional peace prospects and which flew members to the Sinai border town of Taba to meet with Egyptian business leaders.

“UJA has really tried to be at the cutting edge,” Lurie said.

He pointed to this week’s visit to Petra, for years a magical, yet unattainable place in the eyes of Israelis.

“Petra captured the yearning of Israelis to go to an imaginary kingdom,” Lurie said. “It symbolized how Israel was in a claustrophobic state with all its neighbors refusing to open their borders. It captured their yearning to be normal and accepted and part of the Middle East.”

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