Working quietly and on a shoestring budget, the little-known San Diego State University Foundation has earned the praise of State Department officials for its seven-year effort to promote a Middle East peace by sponsoring a cooperative agricultural program between Israel and Egypt.
Ironically, the foundation's success in bringing together Israeli and Egyptian agriculture researchers could have gone unnoticed were it not for the group's recent failure in its first venture into the imbroglio of Middle East politics.
Keeping a low profile for seven years was difficult, said foundation General Manager Harry R. Albers, and was made all the more so by the project's success. But the secrecy was essential, he said, given the political realities of the Middle East and the Arab world's ostracism of Egypt for signing a peace pact with Israel.
The SDSU Foundation, a nonprofit corporation, has been in existence for 40 years. The foundation, which receives no money from the state, raises funds for SDSU research from private sources and has a current endowment of $30 million, from which it funds research projects in fields ranging from astronomy to zoology.
Research for the arid lands project in Egypt and Israel, which includes growing special species of vegetables and fodder, is funded by the State Department's Agency for International Development. The program is administered with an annual budget of less than $100,000 from the foundation's Fred J. Hansen Institute for World Peace, established in 1978.
In 1979, representatives of the estate of Hansen, a San Diego businessman, decided after talks with institute and foundation officials to provide funds to further world peace by trying to bring Israel and Egypt together in a spirit of scientific cooperation.
Gerald Kamens, director of Middle East affairs for AID, lauded the foundation-run desert agriculture research program for bridging the gap between two formerly bitter enemies.
Indeed, the foundation's work in the Middle East was a closely guarded secret until last month, when Israeli officials announced that they would not allow two moderate Palestinian leaders to attend a group-sponsored meeting in San Diego. The talks, which would have included Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian political leaders, were organized to discuss Israel's occupation of Arab territories.
Although the meeting collapsed, Albers said the group remains undaunted and will continue to play a modest role in helping to find a peaceful solution to the Middle East's problems by organizing similar meetings in the future and continuing to administer its agriculture research program in Israel and Egypt.
"We were terribly disappointed that our first attempt to bring the politicians together didn't succeed," Albers said. "However, the meeting was totally separate from what we have been doing very quietly and, I might say, successfully, since 1980 in both countries, particularly in the area of arid land agriculture. Outside of specialists in that field, few people know how successful we've been at bringing Israeli and Egyptian scientists together."
The institute's search for peace began in 1979.
"The Camp David peace agreement had just been signed," Albers said. "When (Egyptian President Anwar) Sadat made his famous trip to Israel . . . Sadat and (Israeli Prime Minister Menachem) Begin mentioned two areas that were of mutual interest to their countries--oceanography and arid lands agriculture. . . . We took that as our cue."
Acting on the seemingly innocuous comments by both leaders, Albers began contacting Egyptian and Israeli officials to find out what the foundation could do to help the peace process. After spending a year talking to the Agency of InternationalDevelopment, Egyptian and Israeli officials, the foundation learned that Congress had earmarked money to spend on cooperative programs between Egypt and Israel to assure success for the Camp David agreement.
Early in 1980, the foundation, using part of the $80,000 Hansen Institute budget, quietly arranged a weeklong meeting of U.S., Egyptian and Israeli oceanographers at the Mission Bay Hilton. The meeting led to a three-year, $2.4-million cooperative program between Egypt and Israel for marine research that was funded by AID and administered by New Jersey State University oceanographers.
"At that time the Egyptians were not interested in working directly with the Israelis," Albers said. "But they said they would sign an agreement just with the American scientists. The Israelis would sign an agreement with the American scientists, and then the research would proceed. But there would be no agreement between Egypt and Israel. So, the separate agreements were termed 'mutual bilaterals.' "