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Peace Turns Daring Exploit Into Tourist Treks: Israelis Explore Jordanian Sites

BACK in the 1960s, Israelis had a celebrated way to see Petra, the famed Nabatean city carved out of the red-sandstone mountains of southern Jordan.

They would steal across the heavily guarded border at night, trek through 20 miles of Jordanian desert, and return with a picture in hand to prove that the daring mission had been accomplished.

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Many or perhaps most of the few dozen Israelis who tried it, however, were killed by border guards or local Jordanian Bedouin. The handful who made it became instant heroes.

These days, getting to Petra requires much less heroism. Seizing the opening created by the historic July 25 White House handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and Jordan's King Hussein, hundreds of Israelis have already crossed into the Hashemite Kingdom on organized tours to Petra and other local sites.

Israeli travel agencies predict that the tourists are the first of what is likely to become a tidal wave of Israeli visitors once relations between the two old enemies are fully normalized.

``It's one of the first manifestations of the era of peace,'' proclaims a promotional brochure describing tours to Petra in Israel. Come now, it beckons, ``before the flood [of tourists] that's bound to begin.''

The main attraction in Jordan is Petra, the ancient Nabatean capital that earned its place in history as a stopping point for camel caravans plying the famed ``perfume route'' from Arabia to the Mediterranean.

But for Jewish visitors, Jordan is a compelling attraction for other reasons. The children of Israel passed through Jordan's Edomite desert on the last leg of their 40-year flight from Egypt. It was from the top of Mt. Nebo that Moses caught his only glimpse of the Promised Land and it was in modern-day Jordan that both he and Aaron, his brother, died, according to the Old Testament.

From the land of Moab, north of Edom, meanwhile, Ruth emigrated with her mother-in-law and married into the family that, three generations later, produced Biblical Israel's greatest leader, David.

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``Jordan is a tourist attraction in its own right, but it's also part of our own legacy and tradition as well,'' says Rudi Golan, who manages the Tel Aviv operations of one of Israel's largest travel agencies.

``It is now finally possible to touch the myth and to fulfill a childhood dream,'' echoes another Hebrew-language advertisement for Jordan tours.

Since 1948, when the modern state of Israel was founded, the rugged mountains that lie across the Jordan River have been both a barrier and an invitation - the border that most constricts the tiny Jewish state and a visible reminder of a different world, temptingly close, but completely out of reach because of the formal state of war that existed between Israel and Jordan until last summer.

``Jordan was always in a unique position, because you could see it and not get there,'' one longtime resident of Israel says.

``For years, we could look at the Moabite mountains and think about Ruth coming from there; you can see why it beckons,'' he adds.

Under the ground rules worked out between the two governments, only Israelis who are dual nationals, and who thus carry two passports, can make the tours.

But Jordan may be opened to all Israelis even before the two countries get around to exchanging full diplomatic recognition, which will be a mixed blessing for Jordan. Negotiations to normalize relations between Israel and Jordan are continuing, and President Clinton will meet with Jordan's Crown Prince Hassan and Israeli's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on Oct. 3 in Washington, with a treaty-signing date expected to be announced at that time.

Jordan desperately needs the foreign exchange that tourists will bring, but is ill-equipped to handle the anticipated crowds. Petra has only two moderate-sized hotels, plus a third now under construction - hardly enough if Israelis invade Jordan with anything like the force with which they have descended on other popular tourist destinations in the region, such as Turkey.

Most of the package tours to Jordan last about eight days, cost less than $1,000, and include overnight stays in Amman, the Jordanian capital, and Aqaba, Jordan's Red Sea port.

For the more adventuresome, jeep tours are available through Wadi Rum, the spectacular stretch of southern desert where the movie ``Lawrence of Arabia'' was filmed.

The ultimate trip, now being planned by a group of Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian entrepreneurs, will be a modern, four-day camel caravan along the ``perfume road'' from Petra across Israel's Negev Desert to the Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean.

``Israelis love to free themselves from the sense of pressure and from the closed-in feeling of living in a small country,'' says Mr. Golan. ``Way before peace was established, tourists were going to countries like Morocco and Indonesia. The doors had been opened only a crack, and already Israelis were going in.''

``Jordan is not a major destination on the tourist map yet,'' Golan says, ``but it's going to take shape soon and be extremely popular.''

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