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Publisher\Editor Don Canaan

                      Aug. 27, 1996 V4, #158
All the News the Big Guys Missed

An Eilat-Aqaba-Taba Mega Resort?

By Al Pessin (VOA-Eilat)

Nearly two years after Israel and Jordan signed their peace agreement, economic relations are still limited. There has been some trade, and this month, the first shipload of goods bound for Jordan was unloaded at the northern Israeli port of Haifa. Many people on both sides believe the greatest potential for Jordan-Israel cooperation lies several hundred kilometers to the south, where narrow strips of the two countries come together at the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba.

From almost anywhere in Eilat, the whitewashed buildings of Aqaba are easily visible, just 4.3 miles away along the beach. But for decades it was, as the old saying goes, not possible to get from here to there.

Yosi Shvekah grew up in Eilat, and recently, as vice chairman of the city's chamber of commerce, he was part of one of the first delegations of local executives to make that short and previously impossible trip.

"We grew up here in Eilat, so, you know, we were sitting on the beach, as kids, and we were always looking to the other side and we dreamed about, they come, that we can go over and see Aqaba, how the people live there. And you know, all the stories of people taking a bottle and putting a note inside and closing it and throwing it to the sea and maybe it's going to the other side? This is what the Eilati kids were doing all the time. And the first time that I passed the border, it was absolutely emotional and exciting for me and for all the friends that were with me."

Once the trip from Eilat to Aqaba was impossible. Now it involves visas, border fees, and time-consuming procedures. Someday soon, Shvekah and some of his colleagues hope, there will be a promenade along the beach on which local residents and tourists can freely stroll or bicycle back and forth.

Eilat and Aqaba, as well as the nearby Egyptian town of Taba, form what tourism industry executives call a natural resort area. "The region will be ready. The question is how stubborn are the people that are trying to push the plan, because if they are not stubborn enough, they are not going to do it."

This is Dov Sharf, the Eilat city official responsible for regional cooperation. He says he is ready to be stubborn enough to push the region's conflicting business interests together for their own good.

"There is a difference of culture, different way of doing business. We have to come half of the way and they have to come half of the way in order to learn how to deal with each other. It would be so obvious, so natural to have cooperation based on economics in this region because all three towns, Aqaba, Eilat and Taba, each city is a resort area in its own country, and by combining the structure, services, economics for all three countries, it would give them benefit by size."

But local business executives are not so sure. Some in Eilat worry that they would lose business to Aqaba, with its nicer beaches and less-expensive hotels. Dov Sharf has this response.

"For a short time, yes. And I think that we should accept it if we really want to have peace in the region. You have to sacrifice something. And for the benefit of our children, for the sake of the future, we should give some of our assets to give up."

The southern border crossing, which could be a key point in developing Israel-Jordan trade, is just a few kilometers from Eilat and Aqaba, on the very spot in the desert where the Israel-Jordan peace treaty was signed in October 1994, and not far from where some people on both sides hope to build a joint airport.

But so far, concerns from executives and workers on both sides have combined with bureaucratic delays and lingering animosities to limit Israel-Jordan economic ties during the past two years.

Those involved in the fledgling process acknowledge things might take longer than they anticipated. They still believe that ideas of thriving trade, a free-access tourist area, the joint airport, and other Israel-Jordan cooperation plans have more chance of success than those ill-fated messages in bottles Eilat children used to set adrift on the sea.

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