The brainchild of Israeli, Jordanian and American educators and business people, the "Bridging the Rift" centre hopes to inaugurate the 150-acre campus within five years.

It is named after the Jordan Rift Valley 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 and Cornell universities in the United States.

Sharon to meet King

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon held a reception at his residence for the organisers and pledged his support. He said he expected to meet Jordan's King Abd Allah II in a few days. 

"I discussed with King Abd Allah this project several times and I believe that I am going to see him in a few days," said Sharon. He did not say where the meeting would take place

Although the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1994, cultural and economic relations are limited. The three-year Palestinian Intifada or uprising against Israel’s occupation has also strained diplomatic ties. About half of Jordan's population is Palestinian.

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

On Monday, the head of the Jordanian Professional Associations, Muhammad al-Uran, sent a letter to Prime Minister Faisal al-Fayiz expressing his opposition to Jordanian students studying side by side with "the Zionist enemy."

Bridging gaps
 

View of the scientific centre

Backers hope the centre will be a scientific hub for the Middle East and breathe life into the decade-old treaty.

"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.

Kochavi said a science centre was chosen because science could provide a common language between Israeli and Jordanian students.
 
"Until now there has been nothing to bring Israelis and Arabs together beside the battlefield," he said.

Red tape   

"Until now there has been nothing to bring Israelis and Arabs together beside the battlefield"

Mati Kochavi,
Israeli businessman

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

"Besides science, there is something which is mutual to the region, how to make something out of the desert," Kochavi said. 

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 bi-national campus: whose laws would be in effect. The solution is Israelis are to be under Israeli law, and Jordanians under their law. 

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 centres and less likely to be a target for those opposed to peace between Israel and the Arab world, said organisers.