Save the 'science peace plan'

A little-known, surprisingly successful American-funded program is slated to be phased out.

test tube science 88 (photo credit: )
test tube science 88
(photo credit: )
Various peace plans for the Middle East have failed during the past six years. Now, yet another Middle East peace plan, this one in health and science, and which has worked splendidly for over a quarter century between Israel and its Arab neighbors, call it the "science peace plan," is failing by the US State Department's own initiative. Shockingly and without explanation, this vital Middle East Regional Cooperative Program, MERC, has been dropped by the State Department, removing it from the 2008 budget request to Congress. The program itself was created by the Congress in 1979 to help normalize relationships between Israel and its Arab neighbors through cooperative scientific activities. Dropping this $5 million a year program after over a quarter century of success means eliminating cooperative programs already in place in health, agriculture, the environment and other scientific areas. The discontinuation of this successful program is a scientific and political nightmare to Arab and Israeli scientists, physicians, and health-care workers in the Middle East who have done more for regional collaboration and conflict management between the participants then any politician could dream of during the past 27 years. The Kuvin Center for the Study of Infectious and Tropical Diseases of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is a paradigm of but one of several academic centers in Israel that has been involved in regional Arab-Israeli cooperation with the MERC program since its inception when the First Regional Cooperative Health Program between Ain Shams University in Cairo and the Kuvin Center of the Hebrew University was signed in 1980 at the US National Institutes of Health. That State Department USAID (Agency for International Development) funded program combated the plague of Rift Valley Fever, which killed millions of Egyptian livestock and thousands of Egyptian people when it entered Egypt in 1979. Congressman Henry Waxman took the lead when he created MERC in 1979 and then sought USAID funds in 1981 for this ambitious project between two countries that had never experienced collaboration in health or anything else in 4,000 years. THE KUVIN Center Hebrew University/Ain Shams University Vector Borne program, successfully dealt with the diseases we fought, including Rift Valley Fever, Leishmaniasis, Spotted Fever and Malaria. Egyptians and Israelis published over 100 joint peer reviewed scientific publications in the international scientific press for the first time ever. It brought Egyptian scientists to work at the Kuvin Center laboratories at the Hadassah Hospital Medical School in Jerusalem, and Israelis to work in laboratories at Ain Shams University in Cairo. That $10 million, ten year cooperative program was medically, socially and politically wise and successful. Subsequently, Kuvin Center scientists have since engaged in collaborative research programs not only with scientists in Egypt, but with those in Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and the Palestinian Al-Quds University, with many of these programs supported over the years by USAID MERC funding. For five years, Al-Quds University has been successfully collaborating with the Kuvin Center in controlling Leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease endemic to the region. In addition, several Al-Quds students at the Kuvin Center are making progress toward their Ph.D. and Masters degrees. A new program to help the infectious disease problems engulfing the Palestinian people was submitted to the Congress and the State Department's USAID four years ago by Al-Quds University and the Kuvin Center to give the first American imprint to a collaborative program in health between Palestinians and Israelis. This includes research, teaching, diagnostics and treatment in a $15 million five-year program which has been approved and authorized in "Report Language" three times by the Congress, including Fiscal Year 2007, but never approved by USAID because of the mantra of "other priorities" in Gaza and the West Bank. The Senate "Report Language" in July 2007 states: "The Committee continues to support the First Regional Cooperative Program for health to be conducted by the Hebrew University's Kuvin Center and Al Quds University" including joint letters of request for funding from the presidents of Al-Quds University, Professor Sari Nusseibeh, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Professor Menachem Magidor. The US House of Representatives has included similar language. The dropping of the MERC program by the State Department prevents any State Department support for regional cooperation like this and other Arab/Israei programs, and it discontinues all cooperative programs in health, agriculture, environment, and other scientific areas funded by the State Department. It undoes all of the professional and personal relationships of scientists, physicians and health care specialists developed over the past quarter century through a formula of trust, transparency, mutual concern, and institutionalization of long term programs. The Foreign Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2007 has been delayed to FY 2008 and I trust that the State Department and USAID will recognize the wisdom of the Congress and advocates like Henry Waxman and Senator Joe Lieberman to reinstitute the MERC program and provide funding for projects in health and science like the Kuvin Center-Hebrew University/Al Quds University regional health project that benefits the entire region, especially the Palestinian people. The Appropriations Committee of the Congress will be deliberating in the coming days and weeks as to the merits of reinstating MERC. To not do so is to send the wrong message to our Arab and Israeli colleagues at the wrong time. The writer, a physician, heads the Sanford F. Kuvin Center for Infectious and Tropical Diseases at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.