New Israeli-Jordan university to break down borders

WASHINGTON — Not too long ago, the idea would have been unthinkable: A student entering a university campus in Israel and exiting in Jordan.

Now that concept promises to become a reality, with plans under way to develop a joint Israeli-Jordanian university extending on both sides of the border between the two countries.

Seeking to enhance the prospects for peace and economic development in the area, Touro College announced recently that it is working with the two governments to develop a school of business and agriculture. It would be located in the Central Arava, a region located between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea.

Touro College is a Jewish-sponsored institution of higher education based in the United States,

"Establishing an educational institution in a no-man's-land between Israel and Jordan" is "a kind of historic event in the building of close relations between two brothers and two neighbors," said Bernard Lander, president of Touro College, which has 10,000 students enrolled on its campuses in New York, California, Israel and Russia.

The project, which has been endorsed by Israel's infrastructure minister, Ariel Sharon, and Jordan's minister of water and irrigation, Munther Haddadin, aims to fill a void in economic development in the Central Arava.

A largely desolate area with populations of less than 2,500 on each side of the border, the Central Arava has failed to keep pace with the scientific, technological and economic advances in other parts of Israel and Jordan.

Supporters of the project assert it will help serve the needs of the region by establishing an academically rich and culturally diverse community that can function as a source of skilled labor and innovative agricultural and industrial research.

"Just visualize what could be achieved if on both sides of the border, this hot desert could bloom," Lander said. "Thousands of individuals could bring prosperity to Jordan and to Israel."

Beyond its practical impact, supporters also believe the project can help strengthen the 1994 Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty.

"The more we will have joint ventures of this kind, the more peace in the Middle East will be enhanced," said Eliahu Ben-Elissar, who helped unveil the Touro project as one of his last acts as Israel's ambassador to the United States.

"Experience has shown that there is a direct correlation between the two," said Ben-Elissar, who is Israel's new ambassador to France.

Jordan, too, welcomed the proposal.

Rania Atallah, first secretary at the Jordanian Embassy in Washington, said she hopes it will "bring real cooperation and results not only to the parties concerned in Jordan and Israel but also to the entire region."

Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), who hosted a Capitol Hill news conference to announce the project this summer, said he hoped the process of establishing the new school, and the benefits expected to flow from it, "will help to open new doors leading to expanded trade and other links between Jordan and Israel."

The college intends to pursue U.S. governmental and private foundation support to help fund the project. Officials hope to open the campus in September 1999.