US to bridge gap in Middle East

February 4, 2005

US scientists are coordinating a plan to create a research centre in the Arava Valley that sits half on Israeli territory and half on Jordanian territory.

Mati Kochavi, an Israeli businessman who founded the project, said the aim was to build "bridges between peoples in the Middle East by demonstrating the benefits of peace in measurable, sustainable programmes involving economic development, innovative research and advanced educational opportunities".

The project has its origins in a plan hatched four years ago to bring together Israeli and Jordanian farmers in the Rift Valley to cooperate in agricultural ventures.

Mr Kochavi convinced the King of Jordan of the seriousness of the project through a "Good Neighbours Programme" and built a recreation park and a medical clinic.

Then he approached scientists at Cornell and Stanford universities, and started to build a network of scientists from Israel and Jordan. Staff and students will enter the new centre using magnetic cards, without the need for passports or visas.

The Bridging the Rift Centre will be located 99km from Eilat and Aqaba on 150 acres of Israeli and Jordanian land in what is being called a "free education zone".

Israeli and Jordanian scientists, along with US colleagues, were last month collecting samples of water, plants, soil and microbes from Red Sea mud in the first step towards building the centre.

A Jordanian environmental microbiologist, who preferred to remain anonymous, is analysing the extreme salinity of the soil and hot spas.

She said that her study would shed light on new microbes as well as bring about "industrial benefits (in agriculture)".

Biological sciences professor Marcus Feldman, director of the Morrison Institute at Stanford, said: "There are already 100 Israeli professors willing to participate, including presidents of universities."

Ron Elber, professor of computer sciences at Cornell, is part of the group of computer scientists at the university who will be working on software to catalogue all the information on organisms from the desert in a highly sophisticated "Library of Life".

One Jordanian scientist said: "We enthusiastically support the Bridging the Rift project for scientific cooperation between us and our Israeli colleagues. This project enriches and contributes to each and every one of us, and, more important, gives the hope that new opportunities for progress and prosperity will be opened in our region."

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