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US aims to fulfill Obama Cairo speech, encourage renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks

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June 4, 2009: U.S. President Obama waves to the audience as he leaves the Grand Hall of Cairo University after delivering a speech in Cairo.Reuters

A U.S. State Department bid to fulfill President Obama's quest for cooperative scientific centers -- outlined in his well-publicized speech in Cairo, Egypt, in 2009 -- may soon result in a cross-cultural network of scientists based in Oman to work on water issues -- and could serve as an opening to ease Israeli and Palestinian tensions.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is considering giving a grant to the Middle East Desalination Research Center, based in Oman's capital, Muscat, for a permanent facility dedicated to clean water technologies, the environment and food security.

The center, drawing upon Obama's 2009 speech in which he pledged to share U.S. technologies and scientific know-how throughout the world, would convene scientists from across the Middle East and North Africa, including from the Palestinian territories and Israel.

MEDRC "is looking to reinvent itself and the USAID initiative may be its opportunity," said Professor Uri Shamir of the Israel Institute of Technology, expressing optimism that participation in the center could "lead to talks" on other subjects.

In December, USAID and MEDRC invited scientists from participating regions to a conference in Muscat. Israeli scientists were ultimately unable to attend -- the result of being unable to find flights to the capital after a prolonged delay in visas being granted for travel -- but Shamir said logistics, not politics, got in the way of the Israelis' participation.

Shamir, who would be a member of the Israeli team at the science center, and others say MEDRC is a good starting point for warmer ties because water has been the only issue in which the two sides can cooperate.

"Cooperation beyond water is just a matter of political will," said MEDRC Director Ronald Mollinger.

Israeli officials say that without MEDRC's contribution, Israeli and Palestinian cooperation on water would likely cease to exist, adding to the current impasse in peace negotiations between the two sides.

In Washington, Mara Rudman, assistant administrator for the Middle East at USAID said, the December forum underscores the U.S. government's commitment to addressing scientific and environmental challenges.

"We are pleased at the promising start that the Network of Water Centers has had and we look forward to continuing to work with Oman and our other partners to develop this important network," Rudman said, without comment on whether it could enhance Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Repeated requests for comments from the Palestinian Water Authority went unanswered, but a source close to the decision-making process in the U.S. said the thinking here is that scientific studies can help create political solutions as shared knowledge culminates in the political will for cooperation.

Oman's top diplomat, Yusuf Bin Alawi, initiated the request to receive the USAID grant in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a source close to the foreign minister said. In it, he suggested that Muscat is committed to implementing Obama's vision outlined in Cairo.

The U.S. administration earlier approached Muscat to begin steps toward normalization with Israel as an incentive to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinians. While normalization efforts between the two countries collapsed after the Jewish state decided not to extend a settlement freeze, MEDRC's framework as a multilateral forum for Arab-Israeli diplomacy remains intact.

Oman, precariously located next to Yemen and Saudi Arabia along the Arabian Sea, has been at the forefront of trying to usher in warmer ties between Israel and its Arab neighbors. It also has been able to skirt large-scale political disruptions witnessed across the Middle East and North Africa despite being governed by an absolute monarch.

The country's ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, a longtime regional intermediary, recently pushed for the U.S. to re-engage with Iran after suggesting Tehran was seriously seeking a way out of American-led sanctions over its nuclear program.

But Oman is not the only country to place a bid. The governments of Jordan and Egypt have also applied to host a regional center for scientific excellence in their respective capitals.

An Israeli diplomat speaking on the condition of anonymity said if Muscat is not chosen, regional scientific cooperation, as envisioned by Obama, could become "hijacked" by the ups and downs of the peace process; and thereby ultimately prevent Israeli scientists from contributing.

A Jordanian scientist, speaking off the record on the sidelines of the Muscat meeting in December, however, stressed that Israeli-Palestinian scientific cooperation should be divorced from the general politics of the peace process.

MEDRC's operations are overseen by the head of Oman's foreign ministry and the organization's executive council is composed of senior officials from all the member countries, which include Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, the United States, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Japan and South Korea.

At the meeting in December, an Omani official said the conference and the policy are "perfectly in step with our philosophy" that cooperation and pragmatism are the keys to stability.

For now, until a location has been chosen for the center, the USAID initiative is being administrated by DAI, a Bethesda, Md.-based consulting firm helping to facilitate themes for research.