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Israeli's Mideast Peace Plan: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs

January 28, 2003 |
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Tefen, Israel -- This is not the Israel of ancient ruins and traditional hatreds. This is the Israel of high tech and hope.

This is the headquarters of ISCAR, a billion-dollar manufacturer of metal-cutting tools in which the number of robots rivals the number of human employees. But the owner of the company, Stef Wertheimer -- having survived the Holocaust and two major wars -- believes that the people of Israel, Jew and Arab alike, need a new plan for their common well-being.

"You must have an alternative to war," Wertheimer says from his office, which overlooks both the Mediterranean Sea and the hills of Lebanon. What's the alternative? "Jobs," he declares. His big idea is a Marshall Plan for the Mideast, modeled after the original plan that rebuilt Western Europe after World War II. It's cheaper than war: "Israel and the United States will spend 100 times more on their security than they will on economic development."

Wertheimer himself does not need any aid. Nor does he need to see any more violence. As a boy, he fled Nazi Germany. Joining the Royal Air Force in World War II, he came to Israel to fight in the new country's 1948 War of Independence. He founded ISCAR in 1952, making metal-cutting tools on his kitchen table. Today, his firm exports 99 percent of what it makes.

But Wertheimer has long been interested in politics, as well as business. In 1974, he helped found the Shinui -- "reform" -- Party for two reasons: first, to support policies favorable to Israeli commerce; second, to oppose excessive religious influence in Israeli life. Indeed, a significant trend of the last few decades has been the struggle between the outward-looking Israel of techies and yuppies and the inward-looking Israel of bahurei yeshiva -- full-time students in rabbinic seminaries. "I'm observant, not anti-religious," Wertheimer says. But he is opposed, he adds, to the abuse of public funds in the name of religion.

Few Americans realize the degree to which the so-called ultra-religious parties have altered Israel's public square. Typically, men who make a career studying the Torah and Talmud are exempt from military duty; indeed, they are entitled to lifetime subsidies. And because of the high birth rates among the haredim, or ultra-orthodox, the universal ethos of fairly distributed service and sacrifice has been overturned. According to one estimate, just 45 percent of Israeli men of military age serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

Yet while Shinui has concentrated on its anti-religious-welfare message -- and is expected to do well in the national balloting today, based on that message -- Wertheimer ventures even further toward progressive reform. One in five Israeli citizens are Arab, he notes. Social harmony will be assured only when that minority is economically integrated into the majority. For his part, Wertheimer has put his money where his mouth is, spending heavily on philanthropic programs for education and technical training. Yet he thinks of his contributions as enlightened self-interest: "I want to see everyone working and out of mischief."

So what would Wertheimer do about the 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, where unemployment runs to some 60 percent -- and raging despair runs even higher? In contrast to those, including current government leaders in Jerusalem, who see Israel in permanent control of some or all of the territories, the Israeli magnate says, "I would give the territories back under certain conditions." What conditions? "Economic viability," he answers. His formula can be stated simply: work, not war or welfare.

Economic viability is the goal of his New Marshall Plan, targeted toward Jordan, Turkey and perhaps other non-oil-rich countries in the area. Arguing that income inequality is the big issue dividing affluent Israel from its impoverished neighbors, he calls upon Western public and private investors to put $1.1 billion into Jordan over the next half-decade.

Some say Wertheimer is a dreamer, that the future shape of the Mideast will be hammered out by swords, not plowshares. That is, the Arabs must be dealt with militarily before they can be dealt with economically. That's the current path of American and Israeli policy. Yet sooner or later, the economic problems need to be addressed. Stef Wertheimer says: Make it sooner.

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