March 7, 2004, Updated September 13, 2012

A model of the Bridging the Rift Center which will have its official launch this week on the desert border between Israel and Jordan.An ambitious project in which Israel and Jordan will establish a joint advanced science and technology village on their mutual borders will be launched this week.

On Tuesday, on the border between Jordan and Israel in the Wadi Arava Desert between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, the cornerstone will be laid for the Bridging the Rift Center. A private international foundation, Bridging the Rift, headed by Israeli Matti Kochavi – will develop the center. The project is backed by two major U.S. universities, Cornell and Stanford, as well as Israeli and Jordanian business people and former Israeli military officials.

According to the organizers, the goal is work on joint scientific projects and achieving rapprochement between the peoples. The Foundation’s mission is to “build an effective bridge between peoples in conflict areas by demonstrating the benefits of peace in measurable sustainable ways and collaborative programs involving economic development, cutting-edge research and advanced educational opportunities.”

Each of the countries gave up 72 acres of its territory for the purpose of building the center, and after its establishment it will constitute a kind of ex-territorial island, which will occupy an area of 144 acres. When construction is completed in three to five years, the small piece of desert will be transformed into a thriving science and technology village dedicated to studying the unique ecology of the Dead Sea region. The high-tech center will symbolically straddle the border so that half of the facility is in Israel and half is in Jordan.

Kochavi, 42, a businessman who has been living in New York for the past decade has garnered influential partners in Israel for the project including businesspeople such as Michael Strauss, Shmuel Dankner and Dov Lautman, Maj. Gen. (res.) Eitan Ben Eliyahu, Maj. Gen. (res.) Danny Rothschild, American businesspeople and administration officials and senior military officers from Jordan. The cost of constructing the massive project will come to at least several tens of millions of dollars.

“It will be possible to hold meetings at our center on any topic,” says Kochavi, “for business purposes and for the sake of establishing mother and child clinics in Arab countries as well. Even bicycle riders who want to organize a joint tour will be able to meet and organize there. The idea is that the center will finance people’s stay on the premises and the planning, and will obtain funds for the specific project. Starting from next year, we will also launch a large financial prize that will be granted once a year to people in the two countries who are cooperating in different areas.”

King Abdullah of Jordan, who was a full partner in the establishment of the center, said in a statement, “This is a project that is bigger than Jordan and Israel.” Prime Minister Sharon described the construction of the project “an unparalleled strategic step forward.”

The center will include a campus for biological and technological research, and students will study there from Jordan, Israel and Arab countries. The graduates will receive degrees from Stanford and Cornell, which are ranked among the top five universities in the United States. The lecturers will be Israelis, Jordanians and Americans. Over the coming year, dozens of scholarships will be given to Jordanians and Israelis in order for them to travel to the US for studies and return to the scientific center as lecturers.

The representatives of the universities have already committed themselves to specific plans for carrying out research projects in the area, such as mapping the genetic code of organisms in the Dead Sea and focusing on study of the desert environment.

“The center is located is an extremely interesting environment,” said geneticist Marcus W. Feldman, the Burnet C. and Mildred Finley Wohlford Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences who chairs the Stanford committee that approved the project. “There are numerous organisms in the Dead Sea, the most saline body of water on Earth, and in the desert, one of the hottest places on the planet. How they are able to survive in such extreme conditions is of great interest to geneticists and other life scientists.”

In the future, the entrepreneurs intend to develop a local ‘Silicon Valley’ in the area, a center for science and technology, which will serve as a focal point for cooperation between the peoples and include, among other things, a Camp David-style village for meetings between leaders and businesspeople.

“This Center is the first of its kind in the Middle East – a hub for technology, research, and education for all people in Middle Eastern countries and initially Jordan and Israel” said Kochavi, chairman of Optic Solutions LLC. “It is vital that we look past the disputes of the moment and have the courage and vision to work for a better future.”

“This is going to be a full-blown operating research center,” Cornell´s president, Jeffrey S. Lehman, told The New York Times. “We would not be doing this if we did not believe it was a good science project.”

Lehman is to lead the delegation from his university, which will take part in a ground-breaking at the site, along with Israeli and Jordanian cabinet ministers. Sharon and Abdullah will be hosts that day at separate ceremonies in Jerusalem and Amman.

According to Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, a board member of the foundation and Israel’s former air force chief, some of the research will focus on the campus’ environment, the desert.
“The whole idea is to have distance from political issues and to focus on academic issues,” Ben-Eliyahu told AP.

One of the first projects the two American universities plan to undertake is called Library of Life, a collaboration that will create a massive database of all life in the Dead Sea region.

“The scientific goals are to understand the biology of organisms that live in some of the most stressful environments on the planet – extremely high salinity and extremely high temp with very little water,” Stanford’s Feldman told The Stanford Report. “The other goal is to generate scientific collaboration between Israeli and Jordanian scholars who work on those problems,” Feldman added. “It has that property of being science and academics in the service of peace.”

The desert has fewer organisms than many other climates, according to Feldman, as he noted that the program will plant the seed for many future international collaborations that will add onto the library.

“This is more than a database. The goal is to understand the processes that organisms use to adapt to those extremes,” Feldman said. “In the long run, what you do is you can write down a catalogue of the organisms, genes, where they live, physical properties.”

The scientists hope that the project will allow new discoveries about evolution and how different species interact, as the new database will contain much more data than the existing collections of genomes.

The first students, originally less than a dozen, will begin research in January of next year in temporary facilities. Construction is set to finish in three to five years and will cost tens of millions of dollars. Both Stanford and Cornell will offer Ph.D.s at the center, and the students will come originally from Israel and Jordan. The center hopes to eventually open to students from other Middle Eastern countries.

“Our job is to assist . . . in developing high standards of research that will be used in those investigations, and to help develop a cadre of very well-trained scientists in areas of Middle East where they don’t exist at the moment,” Feldman said.

It was Kochavi who came up with the idea of enlisting Stanford and Cornell as partners in the project.

“I called Cornell first because we thought the focus would be on agriculture, and Cornell has an excellent school of agriculture,” he recalled. “But the people we talked to in Jordan wanted to move toward plant biotechnology and biotechnology in general.”

Kochavi immediately thought of Stanford because of its reputation in combining science, technology and business. “We needed a magnet to bring people together, and the opportunity of getting a Ph.D. from Stanford creates a magnet. People in the Middle East were more than excited when they heard about Stanford’s willingness to be involved.”

“The new center can serve science and peace simultaneously,” Feldman noted. “The development of a critical mass of professionals and researchers in science is also essential for more equitable economic advancement of the region. As Israelis and Jordanians study and work together with scholars from around the world, the benefits of peace will become too obvious to ignore.”

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