Israel, Jordan Plan Joint Research Center

Four years ago, businessmen and educators from Israel and Jordan envisioned setting up a science center that would grow into a campus open to students from both countries.

On Tuesday, the two nations were to break ground for "Bridging the Rift" center named for the Jordan Rift Valley (search) where it will stand.

Israel and Jordan have torn down a stretch of the border fence between the Red and the Dead seas for the campus, which is to be paid for by private donors and is backed by Stanford (search) and Cornell (search) universities in the United States.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held a reception at his residence for the organizers Tuesday and pledged his support.

Although the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1994, cultural and economic relations are limited. More than three years of Palestinian-Israeli violence have also strained diplomatic ties. About half of Jordan's population is Palestinian.

"We need to try and build something between Israel and Jordan ... more than just a peace paper signed, we need to do something to demonstrate peace," said Mati Kochavi, a New York-based Israeli businessman who helped launch the idea.

After breakfast at Sharon's residence, the delegation was to move to the groundbreaking in the dusty Arava plain and then to the Amman palace of Jordan's King Abdullah II (search) for an evening reception.

Project backers are hoping that the center will serve as a scientific hub for the Mideast and breathe some life into the treaty.

Kochavi said a science center was chosen because science could provide a common language between Israeli and Jordanian students. The project has been set up in conjunction with Cornell and Stanford universities in the United States.

"Until now there has been nothing to bring Israelis and Arabs together beside the battlefield," he told The Associated Press.

The desert will be a major focus of the center's research.

"Besides science there is something which is mutual to the region, how to make something out of the desert," Kochavi said. About 70 percent of the Mideast is desert, he noted.

Planning took four years, and bureaucratic obstacles had to be overcome to set up a "free education zone" in what is essentially no man's land.

One issue was the legal status of the binational campus: Whose laws would be in effect. Seemingly simple things were a problem. Jordan allows smoking in public buildings, Israel does not.

In a compromise, Israelis are to be under Israeli law, and Jordanians under their law. Visitors will be subject to the laws of the country through which they enter. The center will devise its own rules on smoking, Kochavi said.

Students would be allowed to move from one country to the other without visas or passports — using a magnetic student card instead — to enable free access to professors and research facilities.

The remote desert location was chosen in part because it is far from population centers and less likely to be a target for militants opposed to peace between Israel and the Arab world, organizers said.

In Jordan, groups opposed to peace with Israel have protested their government's support for the center.

On Monday the head of the Jordanian Professional Associations (search), Mohammed Al-Oran, sent a letter to Prime Minister Faisal al-Fayez expressing his opposition to Jordanian students studying side by side with "the Zionist enemy."

Even those heavily involved in the project were initially skeptical.

"It looked to me not (connected to) reality," said Michael Strauss, a businessman and the project's chairman for Israel.