Be a catalyst, Mr. President, not a tourist

American influence, ingenuity and financial resources can help cultivate a cadre of scientists from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the wider Arab world.

By MENAHEM BEN-SASSON
March 21, 2013 23:28
3 minute read.
Hebrew University's ‘Ardon Windows’

Hebrew University's ‘Ardon Windows’ 370 300. (photo credit: Reuters)

Mr. President, thank you for coming to Israel.

You don’t need me to tell you you’ve come at a difficult time. Next door, Syria’s tragic violence drags on, Iran drives relentlessly toward nuclear breakout capacity, and in Egypt, the Arab Spring gives rise to unemployment and violence. Here in Israel, our peace process with the Palestinians shows no signs of life.

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There is general agreement that your trip will be of little game-changing consequence. “Low expectations,” a BBC News headline declared.

You could be “the first sitting American president to visit Israel as a tourist,” New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote. In an interview on Israeli television, you declared, “My goal on this trip is to listen...

to hear from them what is their strategy, what is their vision, where do they think this should go?” Mr. President, listening is a luxury. Rather than a tourist, you have the opportunity to be a catalyst.

How can you create meaningful change when expectations are so low, in a region mired in strife? Your domestic agenda points the way forward, showing that solutions and progress are achieved not solely through politics, but also through science.

In your first term as president, you proposed a budget that would triple the number of US National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships. And in your recent State of the Union address, you pledged to expand investment in American energy, materials and medical research.

“Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race,” you declared.

If applied here in the Middle East, your support for science and research could open up an alternative path to progress between nations. With the area in crisis and the peace process stalled, regional scientific cooperation, backed by the United States, could provide a framework for building tolerance and understanding.

American influence, ingenuity and financial resources can help cultivate a cadre of scientists from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the wider Arab world who will cooperate, not on the basis of nationality or politics, but through the shared pursuit of scientific progress for the benefit of all.

Imagine for a moment establishing Israeli-Palestinian centers of excellence, backed by generous funding, where researchers collaborate in the natural and social sciences. Working together to solve problems they have in common, people living on opposite sides of armistice lines could engage in mutually beneficial work, characterized not by fundamentalism or violence, but by reason and the desire to lead better lives.

Working together, Jewish and Arab scientists can improve the lives of our citizens as well as people the world over.

At the same time, they may discover that the scientific process provides a model for the peace process.

This week you visited a technology showcase in Jerusalem featuring some of Israel’s leading innovations – among them a car safety system, developed at the Hebrew University, that will save some of the 33,000 Americans who die on US roads each year. You no doubt heard about the “Start- Up Nation,” a name we earned through chutzpah, improvisation, risk-taking and no small measure of genius.

But Israelis take no pleasure in being the sole engine of innovation in the Middle East.

As President Shimon Peres said in a recent speech to the European Union, “The whole Middle East can become a ‘Start-Up Region.’” Indeed, science is a universal language that knows no race, color or creed. It transcends borders and offers a working model of interpersonal and international cooperation that is desperately needed in this neighborhood.

Resolving scientific disagreements peacefully can serve as a template for resolving other kinds of conflicts. For this reason, I urge you to promote and support regional scientific research and collaboration in the Middle East.

Mr. President, now is your moment to make that vision a reality.

The author is president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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