A journey spanning only yards required decades — and peace

Two years ago it would have been unthinkable.

But here I am in an air-conditioned limo, gliding down the steep highway from Jerusalem, through the Judean wilderness, en route to the River Jordan.

I've driven this road east a dozen times, on my way to Jericho, to the Dead Sea, or eventually north to the Sea of Galilee. This time, however, I feel very different. For I'm going to cross the river for the first time ever, to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Incredibly, after 47 years, the state of Israel is at last at peace with Jordan.

As we drive from Jerusalem, we pass black Bedouin tents in the valleys alongside herds of goats and sheep. On the horizon, the mushrooming hilltop city of Maale Adumim looks like a post-modern biblical mirage.

It's hamsin season, when particularly in late spring and early summer, hot desert winds churn across the landscape; it's almost 95 degrees as we pass the Inn of the Good Samaritan (recalling Jesus' parable), then the sign indicating we've dropped below sea level.

We reach the ancient oasis town of Jericho, with its tall date-palms and tranquil avenues. We easily pass into, then out of, the Palestinian Autonomous Area. Israeli and Palestinian flags aflutter with blue, white, red, green and black stripes are the only real sign of demarcation.

We continue north along the Jordan Valley, a familiar route. To the left, barren, dusty hills are dotted with occasional settlements, little white houses and burgeoning green fields.

To the right, the red mountains of Jordan now beckon me, rather than loom. In the city of Bet Shean — known for its extraordinary Roman-Byzantine antiquities, excavated market street and amphitheater — a sparkling new highway sign reads, simply, "To Jordan."

I gasp — as does my Israeli guide — for the sign's very simplicity speaks volumes. We're near the Israeli village of Maoz Haim, where small groups of Israeli schoolchildren and women in traditional Arab garb throng around a Hebrew signreading "Welcome to River Jordan Crossing Point."

We're ushered on. A row of stucco and fiberglass single-story offices have been recently built. Coils of barbed wire top the surrounding fences, but somehow they're just matter-of-fact. It's Thursday afternoon, traffic seems sparse and there is an impression of order.

It feels extraordinarily ordinary.

Yet here at the Sheikh Hussein Bridge, you don't hear the speeches, or read the headlines, or watch the televised handshakes: Here you see the Middle East peace process calmly in action. Customs, visa-stamping, passport-checking, security — it's all become routine.

Two Israeli women soldiers are pleasant and efficient as they help a group of us — Jordanians, Israelis, Americans, French, Japanese — stow our luggage into the ribs of a big shuttle bus waiting to take us across the frontier. We board, a guard cranks open a small iron gate and we drive over the River Jordan — a 60-second journey that's taken almost half a century to bring to pass.

(In truth, here at Maoz Haim, the Jordan River is so narrow — no more than a stream really — I didn't notice we'd actually crossed.) Then off we piled, to Jordanian smiles, more passport stamping, security checks, and the bus waiting to take many of us to Jerash, Amman, and, of course, deep in the desert, Petra, the Nabateans' "city as old as time."

Three days later, we've driven the desert highway down to the port city of Aqaba, marveling at Edom's moonlike red-hued mountains. And there, on the outskirts of this sedate town on the Red Sea, we see an Arabic and English sign pointing to "Eilat."

We look right — and there it is, Israel's port-resort, near enough to touch, with its shorefront pyramid hotels and its neighborhoods rising towards the Sinai's red-hued landscape. I've seen this panorama in reverse many times — but now I'm looking back and realizing how vast Eilat has become, a city grown from a single shack 40 years ago.

The border formalities are identical to those we encountered before — just reversed. As we wait, very tanned backpackers walk from Israel to Jordan; they look like they do it daily. The sense of order and normalcy is again striking.

We cross an open area to the Israeli side and I somehow feel I've been here before. I haven't, but I've seen it — for on this very spot Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Jordan's King Hussein and President Bill Clinton signed the Israel-Jordanian peace treaty.

"Welcome to Israel," says the security officer. Our passports are examined and stamped and I realize I'm thirsty. I've kept a few shekels in my pocket, so I buy a soda. Again I'm struck by how unbelievably routine this experience has been.

Ever since its creation in 1948, a sense of claustrophobia always pervaded Israel, which was surrounded by and sealed off from hostile neighbors.

But like it had been for thousands of years, Israel is again the land-bridge from Africa to Asia, from north to south.

The contract of historic significance with the mundane process of border-crossing affirms the desire on both sides to get down to business. From the border crossing — hardly more arduous than going from Canada to the United States at Niagara — one realizes that peace is truly breaking out all over.