(By Stef Wertheimer)
Last Thursday Andrew Standley, Ambassador of the European Union to Israel, welcomed me and about 600 others at a festive reception at his residence for Europe Day. This holiday celebrates the first initiative toward what has become the European Union. On May 9, 1950, France’s Foreign Minister Robert Schuman announced a declaration that would consolidate the coal and steel industry – the basis of Europe’s military strength – under a higher authority. The Treaty of Paris that was signed the following year united the former enemies of France and Germany and a few other countries toward common goals: “by establishing an economic community, the basis for a broader and deeper community among peoples long divided by bloody conflicts, and to lay the foundations for institutions which will give direction to a destiny henceforward shared.”
While listening to the very articulate speeches of Ambassador Standley and his honored guest, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, I found myself wondering if a bit of Schuman’s mid-20th century wisdom could not be dusted off and applied to our region today. We sometimes forget that Europe was not always united; in fact, it was the stage for some of the worst conflicts known to mankind. If the EU had existed 100 years ago, my father might have been spared the loss of his leg while fighting for the Germans at Verdun. In turn, I would have been spared my boyhood belief that the French were our arch enemies – a fear instilled in me early from my father’s own hard-won lessons.
If the French and Germans -- who were bitter opponents for years -- were able to overcome their distrust and animosity for one another, we in this region can do the same. Peaceful relationships did not happen overnight in Europe, and many years will be required before we can truly settle our differences here. But we must begin by taking the first step. The prevailing stasis can only deter our progress and imperil our security.
King Abdullah of Jordan apparently shares my hope of adapting the European model to our unsettled neighborhood. In his newly published book, Our Last Best Chance, he writes: “My dream is that we will link the economies of Israel, Palestine, and Jordan in a common market—patterned on the Benelux in western Europe. We could combine the technical know-how and entrepreneurial drive of Jordan, Israel, and Palestine to create an economic and business hub in the Levant.” I know that his father shared this hope too. I visited him in the final years of his life and we spoke of this concept. Our hope was to build an industrial park that would provide new export opportunities for Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel, with Eilat and Aqaba serving as the ports for our new products. With the High Commissioner of Aqaba, I presented this idea to the US Congress. However, the turmoil that engulfed the region at that time reduced the plans to a mere concept.
Europe has become the world’s largest economy. Decades of peace have enabled it to spend less on defense and more on society’s other needs. Its strength is derived not only from its unification but also from its production. It is no accident that the EU’s failing economies, such as Greece and Portugal, are those that lag behind in industrialization. And it is no secret that those countries that will be required to come to the rescue, such as Germany and Finland, are those that have valued high level technical education and skills. These are the backbone of industry, which in turn is the basis for a country’s financial stability.
I urge my own country and its neighbors to explore how industry can transform a region. While each country should maintain its own identity and its own mandate, we should work together in training our youth for new export industries, those that will reduce the income gap that divides our societies and, indeed, even divides Israel from within. This is a limited time offer. In July I will celebrate my 85th birthday. Nothing could serve as a better birthday gift than taking the first step toward what was so artfully described in the Treaty of Paris as “a destiny henceforward shared” – this time in the competitive global market.
The writer is the founder and honorary chairman of ISCAR, Ltd. For the past 50 years he has been involved in establishing technical education programs and is chairman of the Zur Lavon organization for technical education. Lynn Holstein contributed to this article.