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Dateline Jordan: John the Baptist Revisited

Does the peace between Jordan and Israel offer a glimpse of hope for the future of the Middle East?

July 23, 2007

Does the peace between Jordan and Israel offer a glimpse of hope for the future of the Middle East?

A few weeks ago, we stood on the banks of the Jordan River — and looked out at the future of the Middle East. We were a delegation from DePaul University in Chicago, standing at John the Baptist’s baptism site of millennia long past.

Recent archeological excavations some five miles from the Dead Sea have uncovered the foundations of the church of Bethany, which was built during the reign of the Emperor Anastasius.

Now we were tourists visiting that site at the Jordan River, the border between Jordan and Israel. We strolled through the reeds sprouting new shoots and fended off the bugs as we stepped inside the new Russian Orthodox Church and also pondered the plans of the Roman Catholics to build a new church at the baptismal site.

Across the Jordan, Israeli soldiers stayed inside while we suffered the heat and humidity of some 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Despite all the reports of terrorism and war, of suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices that dominate the news daily from Iraq, Gaza, Israel and Lebanon, our delegation in Jordan stood undisturbed looking across the River Jordan at the Israeli flag fluttering in the wind.

The day was hot, but it was peaceful. One member dipped a bottle in the water to take back for a friend as a reminder that the River Jordan was a holy place.

For me, the scene evoked past events I had witnessed when I, as an American diplomat, climbed the platform at the Berlin Wall and peered into that great unknown East Berlin abyss and wondered if the conflict between communism and capitalism, between the East and West, between Soviets and Americans would end in nuclear annihilation.

I never dreamed that later I would live in East Germany when a democratic revolution swept that conflict away without killing anyone.

Then in 1989, I was the deputy U.S. Ambassador in East Berlin when revolutionaries, inspired by a sense of freedom and hope for a better future, tore down that Berlin Wall.

Of course, we cannot escape the present when the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians seems as resistant to the peace process as the Cold War was to defusing a nuclear stand-off. Nevertheless, as I stood in Jordan and saw the Israeli flag flying a few feet from us tourists, I glimpsed hope for the future.

The peace between Jordan and Israel is not perfect. Jordanians have millions of refugees and displaced persons from the West Bank and now also from Iraq. And Israelis struggle for security against an Iran that threatens to wipe them off the map and supports Hamas to achieve that end.

When we peer into that abyss in the Middle East, must we despair — or can we find some hope?

After standing on the River Jordan, the peaceful border gave me pause. I for one can hope that leaders on both sides could follow the example set by President Gorbachev when he knew his system had failed to bring peace and prosperity to Russia.

He gave Communist satellite countries glasnost — and a taste of freedom — and the people who had suffered so long under Communism took their future in their own hands and peacefully united a divided Europe.

Arabs and Israelis long for peace. They deserve leaders who can give them a chance to find it.