Jordan's King Hussein made his first public visit to Tel Aviv on Wednesday to promote a relationship that has fast become the deepest among the region's former rivals, as Secretary of State Warren Christopher began his 16th Mideast shuttle by calling for an "acceleration" of the peace process.
The king's visit underscored the surprisingly swift bonding between Israel and Jordan, which was hailed by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres on Wednesday as the "model peace." The ties have already broadened into the most sensitive areas, including military matters.
Since the two nations made formal peace in October 1994, senior army and air force officers who once fought each other have held regular meetings. Security teams have jointly cleared land mines along the border.
The military links were underscored by the king's first stop, at Ichilov Hospital, where two Jordanian soldiers are receiving specialized treatment. One is a pilot who has been allowed to fly an Israeli plane over Jerusalem.
"It is difficult for me to imagine sometimes just how far we've come," the king said at the hospital. Earlier, he said he felt "at home and among friends."
Israel is offering to help update Jordan's aging tank corps and maintain its warplanes. Both arsenals are largely American-made.
Israel has also lobbied in Washington for the sale of sophisticated U.S. F-16 warplanes to Jordan's air force. And it has already provided a gift of boots worth about $250,000 to the Jordanian army, U.S. diplomatic sources said.
The king has been to Israel many times before--several times in secret and once briefly in November for the funeral of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. So his first formal state visit did not offer the drama of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic trip to Jerusalem, where he spoke to the Israeli Knesset, or parliament.
But in both style and substance, it reflected the fact that the Jordanian ties now supersede Israel's relationship with its first partner in peace.
"Hussein is doing everything that we expected [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak to do: tighten practical relations between the two countries in the realms of tourism, commerce, development, personal relations and even security," an editorial in the Tel Aviv daily Maariv noted Wednesday.
After the king flew in by Jordanian army helicopter, Peres said the Jordanian leader's presence was testimony to the expanding ties of trust and cooperation that now bind the two nations in a deepening friendship.
"I cannot remember a time that Israel waited for a visitor with such warm anticipation as it has for you, your majesty," he said in welcoming remarks.
And after talks with the king, Peres told a news conference: "We respect so much the experience of the king and his judgment that we consult with him not just on the bilateral level. . . . We shall always seek the advice and counsel of the king."
A quarter of Israel's police force, about 6,000 men and women, were deployed and much of Tel Aviv was closed Wednesday during the king's visit. Thousands of Israelis turned out to greet the royal motorcade on flag-bedecked streets.
As a sign of the visit's importance, the king brought along 12 members of his Cabinet. At an evening awards ceremony here in northern Galilee honoring the two diplomats who crafted the 15-month-old accord, Peres joked that he wished he had as much support from his fragile coalition government. The honorees were Faiz Tarawneh of Jordan and Elyakim Rubinstein of Israel.
But the day full of historic events and ceremonies seemed as much directed to the missing Mideast player--Syria--as to the leaders who have made peace.
In a tacit appeal to Damascus after his own talks with Peres, Christopher told reporters that the final part of the peace process has reached a "critical moment" when the major parties need to coalesce on the main issues.
Israel and Syria have now held two rounds of closed-door talks since Dec. 27 in an effort to revive the toughest leg of the peace process. Christopher is in the region to assess the success of U.S. mediation and decide how to proceed.
Israel and the United States are feeling growing pressure because of national elections due in October and November, respectively.
"Anyone can simply see by looking at the calendar that there'll be required intensification of the process," Christopher said at a joint news conference with Peres.
Peres added: "We have only a few months at our disposal . . . and without a very intensive effort, I doubt if we'll be able to succeed."
At the awards ceremony, Peres issued a direct appeal to Syria. The greatest challenge to the peace process, he said, is not to let the "galloping prospects pass us by."
Christopher is scheduled to hold talks with Assad in Damascus on Friday.
Meanwhile, in accordance with the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, Israel released about 800 Palestinian prisoners on Wednesday to Palestinian-ruled cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The release, 10 days before the first Palestinian elections for a ruling council, included many prisoners from the Islamic extremist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which oppose the 1993 peace accord.
Israel freed about 1,000 prisoners last year after the West Bank self-rule agreement was signed in Washington. Palestinians said then that 5,500 inmates remained behind bars inside the Jewish state; Israel said the number was about 4,000.
Wright reported from Teverya and Miller from Jerusalem.