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U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel: Middle East Regional Cooperation Program (MERC)

(November 1, 2021)

The Middle East Regional Cooperation Program (MERC) was created in 1979 to promote cooperation between Israeli, Egyptian and American scientists. Since 1993, the program has expanded to include researchers from Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, the West Bank and Gaza, and is open to supporting projects with partners in the Maghreb and Gulf regions. The U.S. Agency for International Development allocates $7 million to fund the program and has provided 24 grants totaling $20 million since 1999.

The goals of MERC are to:

  • Promote peaceful cooperation and cultural exchange between Arab and Israeli scientists.
  • Encourage innovation by inviting open-topic research proposals so regional investigators work on problems most relevant to them.
  • Focus on student and young scientist training by emphasizing cross-border exchanges between Arab and Israeli researchers.
  • Utilize peer review by U.S. scientists to ensure unbiased, thorough evaluation of research proposals.
  • Conduct targeted outreach to extend beneficial research results into the communities that will benefit the most.
  • Encourage direct Arab-Israeli cooperation while decreasing reliance on American intermediary scientists.

MERC funds cooperative projects in the areas of agriculture, health, environment, economics, and engineering. Funds may be provided for grants of up to $3 million over five years, although proposals of more modest size are strongly encouraged. Awards are based on technical merit and the contribution to peace and development in the region (all full research proposals will also undergo external scientific peer review). In this regard, genuine Arab-Israeli cooperation and regional significance are key elements of all MERC projects.

Projects must include at least one Israeli and one Arab partner. To date, the program has also funded activities with participation from Jordan, Morocco, West Bank/Gaza, Lebanon, and Tunisia. Projects involving three or more regional partners are also allowed. Partners may come from academic, private sector, non-governmental, or governmental institutions. The major focus of the MERC Program is on fostering direct cooperation among Middle Eastern individuals and institutions.

The only non-regional partners allowed are U.S. institutions, although U.S. participation is not a requirement. If an American partner is included, their role in the project implementation should be limited to providing technical assistance and must be justified on the grounds of their specific technical qualifications in the subject area of the proposal.

Ideally, MERC projects should apply research and technology to regional problems rather than issues of strictly local or even global concern. Examples of the types of development impacts MERC aims to achieve include, but are not limited to: economic growth that increases incomes of the disadvantaged; improved environmental management; strengthened and harmonized national policies; increased food production; water conservation and efficient use; and reduction of the burden of disease through better treatments or health management strategies. Examples of projects include:

A) Research to develop techniques to increase food production using minimum water, and using low levels of saline water while producing quality fruits, vegetables and ornamentals.

B) Development of low cost and affordable technologies for the treatment and reuse of domestic wastewater for agriculture.

C) A project to increase food and industrial crop production in arid lands.

D) Development of agricultural techniques and technologies in Morocco (this was the first project outside Egypt).

E) Monitoring and modeling of saltwater intrusion.

F) Protection and management of wastewater reuse of a mountain aquifer.

G) AWater Data Banks Project to operate compatible water data collection and dissemination programs.

H) The creation of a binational marine park in the Gulf of Aqaba and a peace park at the Dead Sea.

MERC supported a project to gain insight into the ways by which Arab breast cancer survivors in Israel and in the West Bank react to and cope with breast cancer, and its implications within their particular cultural and social context. The study found significant differences in coping mechanisms between the more individualistic society in Israel and the more collectivistic society in the West Bank. Multiple recommendations for practitioners and future studies’ design were developed, including encouraging patients’ emotional sharing, strengthening personal relationships, and considering the importance of a patient’s faith, optimism, hope, and distraction in developing coping strategies.

In another project, a research consortium from Egypt, Israel, Morocco, Tunisia, and the U.S. are collaborating, together with observers from Jordan and Algeria, to develop protocols to advance and improve production of high-quality juvenile grey mullet, and promote the use of hatchery-sourced fry in aquaculture and mariculture around the Mediterranean. Early stages of this project have focused on training researchers and extension professionals and experiments are underway to define the optimal procedures for successful releasing operations, including fry diet, release location, and seasonal timing.

Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian scientists are working together on long-term monitoring of eight previously-installed small-scale greywater treatment and reuse systems in Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. The partners are developing an online platform to remotely monitor effluent quality and associated impacts on soil and agriculture, and conducting a cost-benefit analysis of the shift from freshwater to recycled effluent irrigation for each site. Once launched, the web-based platform will enable real-time remote monitoring of “off-grid” greywater systems’ quality and flow data from anywhere in the world, and ensure effluent conforms to local standards for agricultural reuse. The combined outcomes from this project will assist policymakers in approving greywater reuse standards.

Scientists from Israel, Egypt, and the U.S. worked closely together to: a) Evaluate seed and fruit infection, and study mite/fungal pathogen interaction, b) implement cultural control of malformation and determine susceptibility/tolerance of various mango genotypes to the disease, and c) investigate the population biology and diversity of pathogenic Fusarium species. Seed and fruit infection studies indicated that the pathogen is not likely transmitted via seed, suggesting that implementation of cultural management practices would reduce disease and increase yields. Furthermore, susceptibility/tolerance studies of various mango genotypes showed that certain cultivars in Egypt exhibited resistance to MMD. During the project, a pamphlet was distributed to approximately 7,000 Egyptian farmers that described the cultivation of disease-free seedlings. The project had a direct impact on mango production by elevating yields, reducing disease, and enabling the establishment of healthy, new mango plantings.

A team of Jordanian and Israeli researchers worked at the molecular, cellular, whole organism, and ecosystem levels to develop a toolbox of methodologies for rearing corals more resilient to environmental changes and restoring denuded coral reefs. This research led to significant conceptual advances in the discipline of reef restoration. This project also provided a unique opportunity for training young marine scientists in all aspects of modern coral research. It also led to greater regional collaboration on reef restoration, significantly expanded the scope and scientific sophistication of coral research in Israel and Jordan, and led to the publication of more than 17 peer-review journals/books.

Jordanian and Israeli researchers used MERC funds to determine how to growing willow trees in an economically and ecologically sustainable manner in semi-arid regions as a forage source with enhanced nutritional and nutraceutical properties. Outcomes: Jordanian and Israeli researchers established plots of native willow trees irrigated with recycled water, and in locations where other forage plants are unable to grow. In these marginal agricultural lands, they found that willow can rapidly produce substantial biomass and has the added advantage of tannin production associated with decreased parasitic infection. Results from this research indicated that feeding willow to goats maintains both goat health and milk quality while inhibiting nematode infection.s

One MERC project that received nearly $3 million from 1993-1997 was a collaboration involving scientists at Virginia Tech and the National Research Centre of the Ministry of Agriculture in Cairo, Egypt, and the Weizman Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. These scientists sought ways to eliminate crop devastation by a parasitic weed known as Orobanche. Interdisciplinary studies focused on basic biological relationships between parasitic weeds and crop hosts. State of the art methodologies were utilized, including extensive biotechnology and genetic engineering research. MERC involved resting and evaluating classical and molecular monitoring techniques linked with damage estimation, integrated agronomic practices, and chemical and biological control techniques. The Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech played a major role in project implementation.

Another project involved researchers from Egypt’s Plant Pathology Research Institute, Israel's Hebrew University, the Palestinian Authority's Bet Lehem University, Jordan's Al-Balqa' Applied University, Lebanon’s American University of Beirut, Beirut, Tunisia’s University of Tunisia, and Americans from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and National Germplasm Resources Laboratory. The general goal was to stablish standardized virus detection methods for the Middle East, particularly Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia. The specific goals were to:

1. Develop reliable, sensitive detection methods for the major viruses infecting selected propagative materials, i.e., potato, tomato, banana, grapes, and stone fruits.

2. Establish a collection of virus antisera and virus detection probes for distribution to private sector and to government institutions in addition to those involved in this project.

3. Establish a Plant Pathogen Detection Lab in the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia.

4. Standardize methods among the virus testing labs by building confidence in the virus detection methods through training and exchange visits and meetings between scientists from the different collaborating countries.

5. Expand collaborative efforts between Arab countries and Israel.

6. Implement a fee-based structure for programs where appropriate.

Ultimately, the MERC Program strives to build sustained Arab-Israeli cooperation. Most of all, the program places a premium on projects based on true intellectual partnerships that can be sustained well beyond the lifetime of the grant.

Middle East Regional Cooperation (MERC) Program
U.S. Agency for International Development
Room 2.11-152 RRB
1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20523-2110 USA

Source: USAID