Bridging the rift in the Middle East

Posted: Mar 09, 2004 12:00 AM

As usual, the word from the Middle East recently has been a mixture of good news, bad news. One piece of good news is that the Iraqi Governing Council has signed an interim constitution establishing a framework for democratic self-rule. President Bush lauded the signing in a statement, calling it "an historic milestone in the Iraqi people's long journey from tyranny and violence to liberty and peace."

Unfortunately, not all of the news coming out of the Middle East was so positive. For the third time in just seven weeks an attack was staged at Erez Crossing, the main northern crossing point between the Gaza Strip and Israel. In this particular assault Palestinian gunmen drove in jeeps disguised as Israeli army vehicles. The operation left four Palestinian terrorists dead, along with two other policemen. The tragic result of the latest attack of the intifada was the closing of an industrial area, preventing some 20,000 Palestinians with work permits from transiting through Erez for work.

There is, however, another bit of good news to report from the Middle East. I recently participated, along with Gen. Tommy Franks, in a dramatic groundbreaking and bridge-making ceremony of the Bridging the Rift project. The Bridging the Rift Center will straddle the border on a 150-acre plot to which both countries made equal contributions in the Araba/Arava region, about 30 miles south of the Dead Sea. New computer languages and databases will be created to integrate the massive amounts of data flowing into the library. At the heart of the foundation's initiative is the establishment of an educational facility that will be a center of education, research and development for the countries of Jordan and Israel.

The Bridging the Rift project was set up in 2000 by Israeli, Jordanian and American business leaders with support and tremendous leadership from both Cornell and Stanford universities. The plan is to create a free education zone to promote the exchange of ideas and knowledge between Israeli and Jordanian scientists. The hope is that the people from these two countries can start by speaking the common language of science, research, education, open trade and tourism across borders, enabling them to build a language of cooperation and partnership.

The Bridging the Rift Foundation was established to achieve a single goal - to contribute to peace in the Middle East. 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." Both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and King Abdullah are committed to the concept and have helped establish both the university and trade zone over the objections of some in their respective countries.

The importance of this joint undertaking has assumed even greater symbolic importance since this project comes at a time of heightened turmoil and mutual suspicion between Muslims and Jews, and between Israel and her Arab neighbors. Nonetheless, sponsors and enthusiastic supporters of the project remain optimistic, describing their work as a serious scientific and educational effort that combines the kind of bridge-building envisioned by the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty and free trade zone.

The Bridging the Rift Center will be the first institution of its kind in the Middle East. Initially it will be open to exceptional students and researchers from Israel and Jordan, then eventually to students and scientists from other countries in the region. Hopefully, the real and symbolic cooperation among these two states and their people that has begun here with the free exchange of ideas can ultimately blossom into the free exchange of commerce, individual freedom and liberal democratic ideals throughout the region. In this effort, the United States should continue to assist in the political and economic transformation of the region by advancing Bush's progressive ideas for a Middle East regional free-trade zone with the advice and counsel from our friends and allies in the Middle East.

Toward this end, I have recently been to Egypt with Hernando de Soto to continue our work together to promote and facilitate a 21st century Marshall Plan for South Asia and the Middle East extending from Kabul to Jerusalem. We recognize that any plan for reform and progress in the region toward democratic capitalism ultimately must come from within the Muslim and Arab world - with our counsel and assistance.

To paraphrase Adam Smith, little else is required to carry a state to the highest degree of wealth from the lowest levels of poverty but peace, low taxes, sound money and a tolerable administration of justice.

By taking these first steps amid many obstacles and much pessimism from within the region, those who have worked to create the Bridging the Rift Center and foundation have restored hope and optimism that regional cooperation and peace are at least possibilities. Indeed, the failure to do so is not an option.