Educational center to straddle Mideast border

Israel, Jordan to share scientific institution

March 09, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

WADI ARAVA, Israeli-Jordanian Border - In a region usually defined by the way people are separated, whether by barbed wire or walls, there is one place where a barrier is coming down.

Workers have cut the fence marking the border between Israel and Jordan south of the Dead Sea to make way for an educational institution that will straddle the border.

The cornerstone is to be laid tomorrow for the $30 million Bridging the Rift Center, a science and technology collaborative backed by Cornell and Stanford universities where participants will study plant and animal species to build what the researchers call a Library of Life. The center is scheduled to open in five years.

It took four years for the project to get this far, surviving the minefields of politics and bureaucracies in which the simplest transactions can confound the most patient of people. But the leaders of the project succeeded in doing the nearly impossible: moving a border.

"It is so easy in this region to find a reason not to do something," said Michael Strauss, an Israeli dairy executive who helped secure political backing for the center. "But to do something in spite of everything takes people who are a little bit naive and a little bit crazy."

About 120 people from the United States, Europe and the Middle East are involved in the New York-based Rift Foundation, which is run by Mati Kochavi, 42, an Israeli businessman who has worked in the United States for a decade and invested more than $1 million of his money in the endeavor.

"We are not naive people," Kochavi said Sunday while sitting next to Strauss in a Tel Aviv hotel. "We are scientists, prominent business people, military commanders, all who have the courage to build something new."

The Library of Life, to be headed by Ron Elber, an Israeli professor of computer science at Cornell University, is to be a comprehensive encyclopedia of living organisms, categorized by DNA sequence and by the environment in which they live. It is intended to help scientists study the genetic differences between examples of the same species living in different climates.

It is the kind of project that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel and King Hussein of Jordan envisioned when they signed a peace accord in 1994. King Hussein described the peace treaty as "the end of a chapter of darkness and the opening of a book of life."

Kochavi regrets that it took nearly a decade for those words to begin to become reality.

"This is not an easy initiative," he said. "Look at what is happening around us. The Middle East is on fire. The Israelis and the Palestinians are killing each other. The challenges are huge. It took a long time, and every day brought and still brings new problems and new surprises."

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has strained relations between Jordan and Israel, but many business ventures remain intact. Kochavi said his goal is far broader. "This is a peace project," he said.

The Bridging the Rift Center is being built when conditions seem anything but favorable. Israel is completing a 450-mile-long barrier to separate the West Bank from Israel, on the theory that peace is better guaranteed through separation than through co-existence.

For the moment, all that stands on the 300 acre site - divided equally between Jordan and Israel - are the steel viewing stands built for today's opening ceremony.

There are few military watchtowers, mostly because there are few people to watch. The Jordanian side is virtually uninhabited, and the Israeli side is populated by about 400 farmers who account for more than half of Israel's exports of tomatoes, melons and peppers.

The farmers hope to take advantage of having environmental researchers as neighbors. The chairwoman of the Central Arava Regional Council, Lilach Morgan, hopes that when the center is finished, hundreds of students and teachers will come to Arava to study and live.

But the area is still laden with reminders of past wars and present-day mistrust. One sign warns motorists: "Military road. No deviation by foot or car." Ahead is another sign that explains why: "Minefield."

"There is a peace agreement between Israel and Jordan," said Morgan, who has lived in the region for 27 years. "But peace has to be between people."

Standing at the spot where the border fence has been cut, she said, "It's not just the fence; it's what the fence symbolizes. Fences do not bring people toward each other."

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