THE RUNWAY LIGHTS at the small and usually sleepy Eilat airport suddenly -- and unexpectedly for a Friday night -- went on for five minutes. It was Aug. 30, 1986. The light aircraft landed uneventfully and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and his entourage, which included Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, were ushered into a waiting car.

After a short drive, they boarded an Israeli patrol boat. Leaving a white wake behind it, the boat moved at full speed across the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea. Within a matter of minutes the Israelis reached their destination on the eastern shore on the outskirts of Aqaba where they were greeted by their host -- the monarch of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, His Majesty King Hussein ibn Talal.

Obviously no brass bands or representatives of the news media were on hand to mark the first visit of an Israeli head of state to Jordan. The meeting was secret, as previous meetings between Hussein and other Israeli officials have been. But the meeting was also not the first between the two men. Indeed, stretching back over more than two decades, Hussein had met with Israeli leaders, most often in London or Europe but also three times in Israel where Hussein met Prime Ministers Golda Meir and Rabin. What follows is the first published account of what American officials who coordinated the network of unseen diplomacy called "Operation Lift."

The story of the secret contacts began in the 1960s, at Hussein's initiative as the Israelis recall it. It was the middle of 1963; the king was only 29 and he had been on the throne for a full decade consolidating his power. He felt sufficiently confident to renew the ties with the Zionists that had prompted a Palestinian Arab gunman to assassinate his predecessor, King Abdullah, in Jerusalem in 1951. Hussein is said to be haunted still by the sight he himself saw on the steps of the silver-domed Al Aqsa Mosque that day -- his beloved grandfather Abdullah falling in a pool of his own blood. It remains the main reason for Hussein's refusal to confirm he has spoken with Israelis.

Hussein was also feeling alienated from the Arab world. Egypt's radical President Gamal Abdel Nasser was pressing him to form a military alliance; Syria was claiming some of the vital waters at the source of the Jordan River, and unrest among Palestians in the West Bank was reaching dangerous levels. Hussein's chief foreign advisers -- the British -- had been urging him for years to struggle for moderation in the Middle East by forging links with Israel. In 1963, he sent a message to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in Jerusalem.

The Israelis were delighted. Eshkol dispatched the director-general of his office, Yaacov Herzog, to London to confer with the king. The meeting took place in September, in one of the large and comfortable houses of the St. John's Wood neighborhood. Their host was Dr. Emanuel Herbert, who was then 65 years old and, despite being Jewish, was Hussein's personal physician.

At that first meeting with Yaacov Herzog, who continued until his death in 1972 to be the Israeli liaison to Hussein, the monarch outlined a request he was making to the United States for military aid. That was the main topic, again, at a follow-up meeting in Paris with Foreign Minister Golda Meir, and the Israelis agreed to put in a good word for Hussein in Washington, because in exchange they received a share of the Jordan River's valuable water.

Despite this precedent of clandestine cooperation, Hussein committed the mistake of his life in 1967 when he ignored Eshkol's pleas for restraint and joined Egypt and Syria in their war against Israel. Jordan lost its half of Jerusalem and all its territory on the western side of the river.

Seeking to press their advantage in secret diplomacy, the Israelis contacted Hussein to explore possible long-term solutions. The king agreed to meet the new foreign minister, Abba Eban, in Herbert's house in May 1968. It was around that time that Britain's Prime Minister Harold Wilson remarked to Eban: "It certainly is interesting that you and King Hussein have the same physician!"

An Israeli familiar with the meeting says Hussein was courteous, serious and "very formal." Eban addressed him as "Your Majesty." He responded, "Mr. Minister."

The king said he was willing to have normal, peaceful relations with the Israelis, but only if they withdrew from all the land he had lost. He rejected Eban's proposals, which would have kept strategic West Bank points in Israel's hands.

The discussion was more precise but also more heated in September, 1968, sources say, when Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon himself had a chance to explain his famous Allon Plan for the West Bank to Hussein. Again, Israel would retain portions of the captured territory, so the king said no.

That was the last attempt to reach an overall settlement in the secret talks, which focused in the following years on what did seem possible to achieve; peaceful co-existence without a formal treaty. The technical details of what became a regular communications channel, as precise and efficient as it was secret, are fascinating.

"Operation Lift" was the code phrase used by the Israelis, the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and a handful of Hussein's top officials to coordinate the meetings. Apart from London, they took place in a tent, in a desert trailer, on the so-called Coral Island near the Israeli-occupied Sinai, aboard an Israeli missile boat in the Gulf of Eilat and even in a well-guarded official guest house north of Tel Aviv.

Participants now reveal that Hussein clandestinely visited Israel three times, the first in 1971 to renew his acquaintance with Golda Meir who had become prime minister. His confidence had been bolstered by his victory over Yasser Arafat's PLO guerillas in the 1970 uprising which many Palestinians call "Black September." The U.S. and Israel had provided indirect, tactical support to Hussein. The U.S. by then had replaced Britain as the primary Western power in the Middle East and the strongest foreign influence on Jordan's king.

Hussein, an experienced pilot, flew his own helicopter to a rendezvous point on the Israeli side of the Dead Sea, not far from the ancient mountaintop fortress of Masada which to Israel is a symbol of the age-old fight for Jewish independence and freedom. From there, the king was flown in an Israeli helicopter, and the pilot reported that he allowed Hussein to take over "the stick" and make a pass over Jerusalem for a few minutes. The monarch was obviously moved as he saw the holy mosques he had lost four years earlier.

On the ground, Israeli participants describe Hussein as thoughtful and generous in bringing gifts and sending messages on a special telex link described by some as a "hot line." Eban and then-chief of staff General Haim Bar-Lev received gold pens topped with the symbol of the Hashemite crown. Cabinet member Yigal Allon received a German-made G-3 assault rifle.

When the king heard that Golda Meir's sister, Sheina Korengold, died, he telexed his condolences to the Israeli prime minister. He seemed to accord particular respect to Meir and Dayan, who were living links to the abortive but farsighted peace program pursued by the king's grandfather, Abdullah.

In another message, in July 1976, sources reveal he congratulated Prime Minister Rabin on the successful rescue of hijacked Air France passengers from Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Tactical agreements on the fight against Palestinian terrorism, border security, the free flow of produce and people across the Jordan River, agricultural development in the West Bank, control of military and civil aviation, and a program to wipe out mosquitoes by aerial spraying were reached in the 1970s.

Through what might be called, in biblical terms, the seven lean years under Likud, Peres as opposition leader was the only Israeli politician who still believed fervently in "the Jordanian option" for peace. During the seven years that Menachem Begin's Likud Party held power, Hussein refused to have any meeting with Israeli officials after a single meeting with Dayan in 1977.

The return of the Labor Party to power, however, with Peres as prime minister of Israel's unique national unity coalition in October, 1984, broke the ice between Jerusalem and Amman. Hussein's old friends, including Rabin, Eban and Haim Bar-Lev, were back in the driver's seat, and the secret relationship was revived with the help of U.S. envoy Richard Murphy and the American ambassador in Tel Aviv, Thomas Pickering.

The most recent contacts indicate how Israel and Jordan can cooperate when they see areas of mutual self-interest. Israel's military governors on the West Bank favor pro-Hussein moderates. With Israeli approval, Jordan's Cairo-Amman Bank is setting up branches in the West Bank. The aim is to increase Amman's influence and involvement in the occupied territory's financial, agricultural, educational and health affairs.

The banking agreement is a good example of what can be accomplished without a formal state of peace. Without telling the rest of the cabinet, Peres sent three officials to London in August, 1986: economic adviser Amnon Neuvach, the defense ministry's West Bank coordinator Shmuel Goren and Galia Maor, who is in charge of regulatory procedures for the Central Bank of Israel.

Around the same time, Jordanian officials including the deputy chairman of Amman's central bank arrived in London, as did members of the Shasha family which owns the largest shareholding in the Cairo-Amman Bank. The Israelis and Jordanians stayed in separate hotels but got together for talks every morning in the conference room of a small hotel near the major department stores of Oxford Street.

The negotiations took three days, but after concessions on both sides an agreement was not only drawn up but was signed by representatives of the two governments.

The four-page pact was signed by representatives of "the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan" and officials of "the State of Israel." Rare, direct talks had succeeded, and the accord is stored in a secret Israeli archive. The bank branch is considered a triumph for local business and already has more than a thousand customers in the West Bank town of Nablus.

Hussein is achieving his goals without a formal peace treaty. Having called off his 1985 alliance with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, Hussein's objective now is to block PLO infuence on both sides of the Jordan River. Raising his own government's profile in the West Bank, for the sake of economic development, has become as valuable to the king as the exchange of intelligence to combat terrorism has been.

Peres, however, has been pressing for more. He speaks frequently of "the historic opportunity which must not be missed" to reach a compromise over the West Bank, for the sake of resolving the Palestinian problem and this averting a disastrous war. Peres put his case to Hussein, in London in late 1985 and again in Jordan when time was running out in the summer of 1986.

Because Peres labored on as foreign minister, the return of Likud leader Shamir as prime minister last October did not put a total halt to the process. Shamir's requests for a meeting with Hussein have been rebuffed, and the Likud has stopped just short of accusing Peres of treason for conducting his own diplomacy with Jordan and Egypt.

The foreign minister flew secretly to London for a meeting with Hussein this past April, the third for Peres since the beginning of the National Unity Coalition in 1984. They quickly agreed on a "memorandum of Understanding," as it was entitled for Israel's records. It is a brief, one-page agreement, typed in English, labeled "Top Secret," and divided into three parts. The typed document bears no signatures, ending only with the venue and date: "London 11-4-1987,"

When Peres returned to Israel, however, he was unable to win support for the peace plan.

Peres and Hussein are now waiting for the atmosphere to change. The king is being cautious as ever, saying publicly that the next step toward peace is Israel's to take while recognizing that the political stalemate in Jerusalem will not change until the scheduled election of November, 1988, puts an end to the delicate Likud-Labor coalition. The election of a new American president that same month will, Hussein believes, bring a breath of fresh air to Middle East diplomacy -- no matter who he or she might be.

Dan Raviv is a CBS News correspondent based in London and Yossi Melman is diplomatic correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Davar. They are the authors of the Hebrew language "A Hostile Partnership: The Secret Relations Between Israel and Jordan".