AMMAN, JORDAN — There on the shore of the Dead Sea, two friends smile broadly, shaking hands covered in thick, black mud as if they have been playing in it like schoolboys.
Jordael is a company founded on mud and is the largest processor of Dead Sea mud in the world - a goo prized for its cosmetic and therapeutic value.
The scene looks natural enough, except that these business partners - a Jordanian and an Israeli - come from opposite sides of the Dead Sea. Across the Middle East, the faltering peace process has dimmed chances that Israel will soon be integrated into an economically powerful "new Middle East." On the eve of a high-profile regional economic conference set to begin Sunday in Doha, Qatar, official pessimism has deepened. Arab accusations that Israel is deliberately sabotaging the peace process have sparked a widespread Arab boycott.
But despite this gloom, Jordanian Ibrahim al-Ajouri and Israeli Uri Ben-Hur have built a successful joint venture selling mud from the Dead Sea mud that is based on mutual trust, friendship, and business sense.
They have left destructive Mideast politics out of their business plan and set an example of how such face-to-face ties are the real foundation for peace. One look at their ambitions and their heartfelt friendliness shows how much can be achieved.
"I've always been against war, and I've never held a gun," says Mr. al-Ajouri, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin whose family was forced from Palestine in 1948 when Israel was declared a state. "If all the money that was spent on weapons in the Middle East had been poured into constructive use, we would be so much better off," he says.
"The majority of Jordanians want peace and prosperity with their neighbors, so in that sense I am not an exception," he says. But the election last year of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts doubt on whether Israeli voters feel the same way, he says.
In Mr. Ben-Hur, he found a partner who also believes that doing business together is the key to lasting peace. "People were telling us it was too risky to invest because the peace process was not complete," says Ben-Hur, a expert on the chemistry of Dead Sea mud and salts.
"But I said: 'Without taking a risk, nothing will be achieved, and there will be no peace,' " he recalls. "Most people are getting more and more pessimistic these days, but we are trying to change that attitude, to show that prosperity is security, that prosperity is the peace process."
The philosophy of the joint venture is "promoting the peace process between Abraham's sons," its brochure says. Both Arabs and Jews trace their ancestry to the patriarch.
On the ground, al-Ajouri extracts Dead Sea mud and packages it into sacks at his factory in Amman, Jordan, then ships it across the border to Israel. There, Ben-Hur's factory purifies it and sells it wholesale or for mud-based cosmetics and health-care products.
"If all Israelis were like Uri - very honest, good, and direct to work with - there would be no problem," al-Ajouri says. Ben-Hur, who refers to al-Ajouri as his "friend, partner, and brother," says the same - that if all Jordanians were like al-Ajouri, there would be peace.
"I'm willing to go to any length to make sure this business does not fail," says al-Ajouri, for whom Jordael is much more important than the 5 percent of his dealings it represents. "Even if they shut the border, I will ship via Cyprus or Turkey."
But such trust did not appear overnight - it had to be earned. The decisive moment came when they were at the Dead Sea shoveling the first bag of mud for testing. Ben-Hur hoisted the messy 100-pound sack onto his back, and carried it to the car. "I thought: 'This is a guy who wants to work,' " al-Ajouri remembers. "I wouldn't have carried it for $10,000!"
Al-Ajouri, who says he was encouraged by the support Jordan's King Hussein has given to cooperation, trade, and peace with Israel, notes that similar ventures could be the foundation for peace. "I don't understand why everyone puts up barriers," he says. "They should all be pulled down, to give our children a chance to grow up without all these old prejudices. Since 1948 pessimists have said, 'You can't do anything.'
"But you can if you try."