Finding Common Ground in the Mideast: The Desert

By Nathaniel Popper

Published October 22, 2004, issue of October 22, 2004.
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There are not many high-up posts in Jewish organizations that involve cheerful meetings with diplomats from Arab nations, but Joseph Hess has found the exception.

Hess is the representative of the Jewish National Fund on the board of the International Arid Lands Consortium, and in his job he hobnobs with Jordanian and Egyptian leaders on a matter that provides them all, quite literally, with some common ground: the desert.

The IALC, which counts Jordan, Egypt and JNF as three of its nine members, works to promote scientific collaboration on common problems facing desert lands, and has sparked a number of cooperative encounters between scientists from diplomatically tongue-tied countries. In September, Hess was named the vice president of the coalition, raising Israel’s profile on the international organization.

Being involved with Israeli international affairs can be a rather dour business these days, but Hess’s work, which involves flying around the world, brings him in touch with one hopeful model for the future of the Middle East.

“I’ve never had an unpleasant interaction,” Hess said in a telephone interview from his home in Orange County, Calif. “People-to-people has always been the key to any peace project. The barriers have always been the leadership.”

Hess, 72, came to the IALC through his work as vice president for government relations at JNF, an Israel-based organization dedicated to researching and developing Israel’s natural resources. The continuing development of the Negev desert and Israel’s chronic water problems has pressed JNF to spend a great deal of its energy on difficulties common to all desert countries.

For the last two years, Hess has helped organize a conference around the United Nations General Assembly meeting to share JNF’s advances with the rest of the world. Last year, when he planned his first one on water resources, with two Israeli scientists doing the presentation, he was told beforehand that he would see Arab representatives standing up and walking out.

“Wrong,” he said. “Not a peep. It was the opposite.” Four hundred people came, and afterward diplomats from around the world approached him — including a woman from Afghanistan, who asked how they could work together.

With his experience at the IALC over the last few years, this willingness to break political boundaries hardly came as a surprise. Each year the IALC has its annual meeting at one of the home institutions. In the early 1990s, when it was in Israel, Hess remembers sitting in the Israeli president’s mansion with representatives from Jordan, Egypt and China.

This past spring he pounded the pavement in Washington with the Jordanian princess Sharifa Zein Alsharaf bint Nasser, talking to congressional representatives about water problems. The princess was Jordan’s board member at the IALC until earlier this year, when she was pushed to do more fundraising for the Royal Hashemite Court.

The IALC, however, has not experienced smooth sailing all the way. The most recent problem is that Egypt — which, along with Jordan, is the Middle Eastern country friendliest toward Israel —mysteriously has stopped showing up to annual meetings the last few years. But recently Morocco and Turkey have expressed interest in joining up, and Hess is always pushing for more regional involvement.

The IALC is based at the University of Arizona in Tucson and includes six American universities, in addition to the three foreign partners. It survives mostly on a $1 million grant each year from the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Most of Hess’s work involves meetings at which the board members decide how this money is split up for research projects. A preference is given to the most collaborative projects, and in the past few years, six or seven have involved Jordanian and Israeli scientists working together.

As JNF is not a research institute itself, it always draws in Israeli universities. This year, Moshe Shachak from Ben-Gurion University and Rida Al-Adamat of Badia Research & Development Program in Amman have worked to provide computerized models of their adjoining desert regions in their countries that can be accessed by scientists and ordinary citizens around the world.

Hess said that Israeli scientists have had occasional problems getting into Jordan to do their research. But the managing director of the IALC, Jim Chamie, said the scientists themselves have not allowed these politics to intrude on their personal relationships.

“We’ve never had problems with the scientists working in different states,” said Chamie, who is a professor at the University of Arizona. “I wish the whole world would be there.”

All of Hess’s engagement with the IALC has been volunteer work since he retired from his first job, working with satellites and other space technology for the U.S. Air Force. His story before then was as rich as his recent experiences.

Hess was born in Fulda, Germany, and his childhood coincided with the growth of Nazism. He remembers Kristallnacht, and how the headmaster at his school would brandish a whip to chase off the Nazi youth and provide Hess with an unmolested path home.

At the age of 6, his parents put him on a Kindertransport, which took him to England and his new British parents. After the war, he thought his parents died somewhere in the East until his father suddenly emerged from Siberian work camps in 1955. At age 71, his father moved to New York and joined Hess and his two children in Southern California.

The inability of Hess’s parents to leave Nazi Germany make him particularly dedicated to the idea of Israel. As a scientist, his work with JNF has put him in touch with the land in the most physical way.

“What I’d like to do now,” he said, “is take the technology that is readily available in Israel and spread that around the world, and say that we can share something good.”

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