Ben-Gurion U. president sees Israel at a crossroads

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Abraham journeyed to the Negev, found a piece of land outfitted with a well that he desired and gave the owner seven sheep for it.

According to Avishay Braverman, president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, this biblical story addresses two ongoing Israeli dilemmas. It spotlights the region's ever-present need for water and the first peace treaty — "peace in the merchant way, not the warrior way."

Political and economic leaders should look to Beersheva — literally the "well of seven," where Abraham's treaty took place — as a model for solving the political, religious and ecological problems that plague Israel today, Braverman said.

"Tel Aviv is too sexy. Jerusalem is too holy. Jerusalem is the city of peace but more blood has been shed there," Braverman said.

Beersheva's "Ben-Gurion is not just a university; it's an institution symbolic of the Negev and how its culture relates to Arab countries. We have great contact with Moroccans, Tunisians, Palestinians and Egyptians."

Braverman would like to expand Ben-Gurion's network of relationships to include American universities — especially Stanford. He recently visited the Bay Area while establishing contact with a number of California schools including the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and UCLA.

Ben-Gurion is noted for its expertise in agriculture, engineering, solar energy and water purification. However, Braverman, former senior economist and division head for agricultural policy at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., would like to add a technology center to the school's attributes. He's looking at Silicon Valley as a model.

"Israel is at a crossroads — politically, economically and socially," Braverman said. Prime Minister Benjamin "Netanyahu needs to continue the peace process. Not just for security, but for economic reasons too. The markets are open all over the world. The international community is looking at Israel in a new way.

"We need to create a vision of Israel for the next century. The key issues to development are population growth, technology growth and education."

Israel's population is 8 million. By 2040 it is expected to reach 19 million. Unless Israel begins planning its future, "we'll be a country of cars that honk horns, but no one will move," Braverman said.

He notes that although only 7 percent of the nation's population lives in Beersheva, Ben-Gurion is experiencing impressive growth. Enrollment has jumped from 5,700 to 11,200 over the last six years.

Ben-Gurion, which the Committee for a Beautiful Israel recently voted the country's most aesthetically pleasing university, is building a new medical school and planning a 1997 meeting between Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Braverman suggests that the rest of the country follow the university's example of accommodating growth without compromising natural beauty.

"Make Beersheva a metropolis like Phoenix [Ariz.]. Build Tel Aviv high and leave the green in between," he said. "We're a small country. We need to plan our future. I don't like bureaucracy but it's important to give our grandchildren a beautiful country.

"Things are changing so fast. Our quality of life need not be measured in the numbers of cars and videos we own. We need to create a beautiful, well-planned, creative Israel. And we in the Negev are the catalyst for this."

Besides setting a precedent for growth planning, Ben-Gurion is conducting research to solve the country's water shortage, which would make Israel less dependent on other countries.

Today, Israel's population demands 2 billion cubic meters of water. By the year 2040 it will jump to 4 billion, Braverman said.

The Turkish government has offered to ship balloons filled with water across the sea to Israel. But the cost is high. Instead, Ben-Gurion scholars are developing a system of purifying wastewater by mixing it with high-quality water for agricultural use. Polluters would pay for the process, which would yield 1 billion cubic meters for the northern Negev.

The other 1 billion would come from the sea. Ben-Gurion scientists are working to significantly lower the cost of desalination.

"In the 1950s David Ben-Gurion said, `Gather the best scientists and go to the sea'" for water, Braverman said. "We have the technology now, but it's too costly.

"Water is the issue for the 21st century. And this is our major initiative."