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The guests who showed up in the office of the minister of education at the end of May were not a routine or predictable group: two businessmen from the Galilee village of Arabeh, a former director general of the Foreign Ministry, and a Jordanian millionaire who is a scion of a Palestinian family and owner of a private university.

Nor was their request routine or predictable, during the period of home demolitions in Rafah: to establish the first Arab university in Israel, with Jordanian funding and academic sponsorship, and with the option of bringing students from all over the Arab world.

The enthusiastic response of the minister of education wasn't exactly predictable either: "A reinforcement of the spirit of peace and a matter of national interest," was how Limor Livnat, who also serves as the chairwoman of the Council for Higher Education, defined the initiative, thereby opening a door to what is likely to be an historic step in the history of higher education in Israel and of Israel's relations with the Arab world.

Since that meeting, the initiators of the Arab university in Israel have been working nonstop. They plan to open the institution in October 2005, and have much to do before then, including choosing a building to rent from among an array of offers: the Jewish-Arab Center for Peace at Givat Haviva, the Carlton Hotel in Nahariya, a school in Kibbutz Beit Alfa, and a place in Nazareth or somewhere else in the north of the country that has room for 1,000 students, five departments and the necessary support services.

They also must begin marketing the new institution to the potential target audience, make a list of all those who have been calling to offer their services as teachers, reply to those who have criticized them in discussions on Arabic Internet sites, and most importantly, submit the academic program so that it will receive the approval of the Council for Higher Education (CHE).

Dr. Zvi Artzi, former head of the Wingate Institute who represents the professional side of the project, is the only skeptical one in the group, and is unwilling to volunteer details about the academic program before it is officially submitted to the CHE. For the other architects of the project, the successful meeting with Livnat is proof that the idea, strange as it sounds in the present atmosphere in the Middle East, is likely to succeed.

When Eitan Ben-Tzur, who served as director general of the Foreign Ministry during the terms of former prime ministers Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu, and who is the designated president of the Israeli branch of Al Ahliyya Amman University, starts to talk about establishing the institution, the spirit of Oslo in the air again.

University of peace

Expressions like "a university of peace," and "New Middle East" are heard frequently, but Ben-Tzur makes sure to emphasize that this time it is not only talk: "We are people of action, who think that coexistence must be implemented, and not only talked about."

Ben-Tzur draws a future picture of a university in which Israeli Arabs, Jews and Libyans will study side by side, dismissing "the profound skepticism, true agnosticism" with which the Israeli population treats any idea that includes cooperation between Jews and Arabs, since the outbreak of the Intifada. "Nothing brings together people from different places like living and studying together in a university," he says.

Brothers Nizar and Annan Darawshe, businessmen from the village of Arabeh who manage the New Middle East company and serve, among other things, as the Israeli representatives of Royal Jordanian Airlines, have been thinking about the idea of the Arab university - the Middle Eastern university, corrects Nizar Darawshe -for years.

There is a demand, says Nizar, because the Israeli universities aren't suited to the entire Arab population, and the Palestinian universities are for the most part considered to be on a low level, which causes large numbers of Israeli Arab students to go abroad to study in Arab countries.

First of all, he explains, many prefer to study in Arabic rather than Hebrew. Second, the psychometric exam that is a prerequisite for admission is for many an impassable hurdle, whereas in most of the Arab universities entrance requirements are based on matriculation exam grades only. Third, the minimum age for acceptance to certain departments in Israeli universities prevents Arab students from beginning academic studies at the age of 18. And the fourth reason is what Darawshe calls "the mentality in an Arab country, which makes the learning atmosphere easier. A student doesn't have to be afraid that he'll be taken off the bus for a security check."

In order to meet the demand, the Darawshe brothers began a project a few years ago of sending Arab students to study in Jordanian universities, while organizing the administrative side and providing stipends to those in need. At present the project includes over 700 Arab and Bedouin students, most of whom are studying at the Al Ahliyya Amman university, the first private university in Jordan.

In the context of work on the project, the connection between the Darawshe brothers and the owner and director of the university, Maher Hurani, became stronger, and they proposed to him the project of the new Middle Eastern university.

"This is the first university in the Arab world that was willing to give academic sponsorship to such an initiative," says Darawshe. Hurani's condition for cooperating on the project was that the Israeli government express its basic agreement to the initiative. Two attempts to meet with Livnat were postponed, once due to her illness and once because of the assassination of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Darawshe says that the third successful attempt convinced Hurani that there was something to talk about.

The Hurani family is a well-known family in Jordan. Several Arab television networks broadcast a soap opera called "Empire," which tells the story of a family that started out penniless in a small village and became millionaires. That story is based on the life of the Hurani family: Maher's father, who was originally from the Palestinian town of Baka al Sharqiya, near Tulkarem, wandered all over the Arab world until he settled in Jordan and went into business.

Today the family corporation includes the Holiday Inn in Amman, a large dairy company, a successful pharmaceutical industry, and other businesses in Jordan, Lebanon and Dubai. The educational side includes the founding in 1990 of the Al Ahliyya Amman University, which maintains departments of pharmacy, law, computers and a future medical school, and the founding of an independent high school in Syria in partnership with the brother of President Bashar al Assad.

The dream: 40,000 students

The Huranis in general, and Maher in particular, are very involved in Middle Eastern politics. Aside from the connection with the brother of the Syrian president, there is also a friendly relationship with Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi, whose daughter studies at Al Ahliyya. Gadhafi comes once a year to visit his daughter at the university, where he donates a million dollars and lectures to the students about his philosophy.

Publicizing the idea of establishing a branch of the university in Israel has aroused angry reactions in the Arab world, says Darawshe. Syrian students who study at Al Ahliyya are threatening to leave if the idea is carried out. The trade unions in Jordan were also very angry, and someone wrote to Hurani on one of the Internet discussion sites that "You'd be better off getting an Israeli ID card for yourself."

But for now the threats and the condemnations aren't causing Hurani to regret his new initiative. "He's a pleasant and likable man, without bitterness or grudges," say Ben-Tzur. "He truly believes that we have to reach an agreement, and that the Palestinians have to set up a proper and efficient administration for themselves."

Darawshe, for his part, prefers to focus on those in the Arab world who are pleased with the initiative.

"Of course the Israeli Arabs are in favor, and there are large numbers of people who want to study with us, but beyond that, I sense a change in the atmosphere in the Arab world," says Darawshe. "We had discussions with Syrian students and Syrian lecturers at Al Ahliyya, and what I hear from them is not hatred for Israel so much as jealousy, because the economic situation in Syria is very bad. If a peace agreement is signed with Syria, in my opinion the Syrian students will be the first to come."

After the university is established, Darawshe is considering the possibility that Arab countries will pay for outstanding students to study in Israel, as they do with universities in eastern Europe.

In the first stage the Israeli extension intends to open five departments: psychology, computer sciences, English, law and speech therapy. This last field will be able to fill a great shortage of speech therapists and specialists in speech disorders in the Arab and Bedouin sector.

On a preliminary visit to Israeli, Hurani and the Darawshe brothers met with the president of Tel Aviv University, Prof. Itamar Rabinovich, and spoke about possible cooperation between the universities in the field, through student exchanges.

Ideas are already being tossed around for the later stages: Ben-Tzur dreams of a journalism department, and of a center for bridging and conflict solution, in which students from the entire Arab world will study.

Darawshe speaks of a department of Arabic and Islam, which will attract Jewish students from Israel as well as students from all over the Western world, with classes taught in English. They are dreaming of a large university, with 40,000 students. Another plan of the group is to establish a network of private high school in the Arab sector, like Sakhnin College in the Galilee.

Nizar Darawshe has an answer for the skeptics, who doubt whether an Arab university in Israel will be able to neutralize historic rivalries and attract students from the Arab world.

"When we came to Royal Jordanian Airlines, they didn't believe that Israelis would fly in planes belonging to an Arab company, and today nine full flights take off every week."

Whatever the case, it is clear that first of all, he thinks like a businessman. "We like to take chances," he explains. "Some people are talking about a railroad from Turkey to Egypt; we are talking about a university."