Border gate opens new era for Israel and Jordan: Another move towards peace in the Middle East as Israel's Yitzhak Rabin drives into Jordan to be greeted by King Hussein

A NEW era of economic relations was inaugurated yesterday between Jordan and Israel by the opening of a new border crossing near the Israeli port of Eilat and its Jordanian twin, Aqaba.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, drove across the new land opening north of Eilat in a modest minibus. It was the first time the head of an Israeli government had publicly set foot on Jordanian territory. He was then whisked off to join King Hussein on his royal yacht which steamed out of Aqaba to cross the narrow bay into Israeli territorial waters.

The meeting was the first since they appeared publicly together in Washington last month. However it has been an open secret for years that Mr Rabin and King Hussein have been meeting clandestinely since 1974, when Mr Rabin was also prime minister. Yesterday Mr Rabin confirmed for the first time that they had had such contacts.

The inauguration of the new border crossing at the mouth of the Arava river has raised hopes of increased tourism to the area, with tour operators keen to follow in Mr Rabin's footsteps and King Hussein's wake.

For 46 years, this narrow finger at the top of the Red Sea has been equably shared by two states supposedly at war. Water-skiers on the Jordanian side could gawp at the sunbathers on the Israeli side - but not touch. Naval cutters patrolled the line dividing their territorial waters.

In maritime terms, the importance of each port to its respective economy was quite different. Eilat handles less than 15 per cent of Israeli trade. Haifa is Israel's main port. Aqaba, in contrast, is Jordan's only port and, until UN sanctions were imposed, served as entrepot for goods going to Iraq.

It is in tourism that there are greatest hopes of a peace dividend from the non-belligerency pact signed between Jordan and Israel on 25 July. One of the enduring myths of certain special units of the Israeli paratroopers is that they won their maroon berets by slipping across the border into Jordan and infiltrating the rose-red city of Petra. Israelis are still in theory not permitted to visit Jordan. The new border crossing is for third- state nationals only, that is, non- Jordanians and non-Israelis.

Hotelkeepers in Eilat are rubbing their hands at the prospect of Saudis coming over to the gaming tables which, by a quirk of Israel's puritanical history, are all on floating platforms and yachts moored offshore. Both Jordan and Israel have expectations that tourists will increasingly combine a visit to Petra and the Roman remains at Jerash in Jordan with tours of the Holy Land.

Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Jordan are already collectively promoting the eastern Mediterranean as a holiday destination. However, tourism is an industry especially sensitive to political violence. The Egyptian tourist industry has been devastated by a handful of attacks on Nile cruisers. And in 1988, at the height of the Palestinian uprising, the Israeli tourist board had to withdraw a series of adverts infelicitously headlined: 'Jerusalem, a stone's throw from Tel Aviv'.

Other schemes for broader economic co-operation, including increased trade, remain more the dreams of those two visionaries - Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan and the Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres - than real possibilities in the near future. The Jordanian economy is dwarfed by the Israeli one, and both are highly protected by tariff barriers.

The opening of the border crossing, which follows the inauguration of direct telephone links on Sunday, is the latest step by Jordan and Israel towards establishing the kind of relations normal between states. Israel has already eased restrictions on one of the most contentious issues: the sharing of water resources. The Jordanian Water Minister announced that Israel had decided to release 4 million cubic metres (140m cubic feet) of water to Jordan from the Yarmouk tributary 'in a gesture of good faith'.

The next action which would underline Jordan's privileged status as Israel's new friend would be a visit by King Hussein to the holy shrines in Jerusalem of al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. He has piloted his Tristar over Israel, and steered his yacht into Israeli waters. The next step should be on land. Such a visit would be extremely controversial with the Palestinians. They see the King's arrogation of custodianship of the religious sites as an attempt to thwart their aspirations to make East Jerusalem the political capital of their hoped-for state.

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