One on One: Manufacturing Mideast peace

Metalworks magnate Stef Wertheimer's plans to cultivate regional cooperation through creativity.

September 21, 2006 10:38
Stef Wertheimer 88 298

Stef Wertheimer 88 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)


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People of the year: JPost special Industrialist Stef Wertheimer has been on the local business, political and social scenes since the early days of the state. Anyone left in the country - or new to it - who is unfamiliar with the history or accomplishments of the 80-year-old carbide cutting tool entrepreneur is likely to have heard his name in connection with the recent sale of 80 percent of his company, Iscar, to American billionaire Warren Buffet - for the modest sum of $4 billion. The deal, according to Wertheimer - a former Knesset member (1977-1982, from the defunct Dash Party), Israel Prize winner (1991) and life-long promoter of economic independence for Israel and of regional cooperation with its Arab neighbors - was aimed at giving a global push to his philosophy of world peace through "productivity and creativity." Wertheimer is best known for his industrial parks, most notably Tefen, in the Galilee, a few minutes away from its companion residential community, Kfar Vradim. Driving northward past Haifa and Nahariya toward the Lebanese border, one is struck by the fact that a mere few weeks ago, this entire area had been showered upon with Katyusha rockets, and its residents shelter-bound for more than a month. Including Wertheimer and his employees, all of whom arrived at work in spite of the war, stopping for air raids and resuming when the coast was clear. Entering the gates of the extensive and impeccably-groomed grounds of Tefen, a stone's throw away from Bint Jbail, one is even more startled by the war-peace contrast. Perfect lawns, speckled with statues - not litter - wind their way around the main Iscar offices, the factory, museums and a kindergarten, outside which a group of children are playing in what could best be described as an orderly fashion. Indoors, employees are feasting on one of three freshly cooked meals a day, served to them by waiters in spotless dining rooms. Not your typical snapshot of an industrial zone - certainly not an Israeli one. But then, Wertheimer isn't exactly your typical Israeli, to put it mildly. Or typical tycoon. His breezy manner and modest attire don't quite jibe with the private helicopter beyond the parking lot that regularly shuttles him to the center of the country. Nor do his politics fit into a category that could be considered conventional. A self-made man on the one hand (a metal-worker by profession), he nevertheless believes it is incumbent on the government to change societal perceptions about the concept of manual labor; a visionary with a "new Marshall Plan" to wrest the Middle East from conflict, yet critical of the use of military force to accomplish this; an ardent Zionist (he fled Nazi Germany at the age of 10) who thinks Israel is still stuck in a "Diaspora mentality," yet staunch in his position that Zionism "needs to ensure that the Arabs thrive as well." How did the war in Lebanon affect your view of regional cooperation? It strengthened my position that peace will only be achieved through industry and employment. This becomes increasingly evident not only in Israel. You believe that violence stems from unemployment. Yet many terrorists are educated and financially well-off. This is frustration on the part of people who have money from oil without working for it. It's unnatural. Are there no cultural differences between one populace and another that influence and affect their drive and ability to achieve flourishing economies? I see very little difference among peoples of the world. Take Mexico, for example, which used to be considered a country that couldn't be industrialized. Today, it has booming industries. And look at the Balkans. Up until a decade ago, they were constantly at war. But when they wanted to enter the European market, they stopped fighting and started investing their energy in competing to show Europe how good they were at producing goods. And they're succeeding very nicely. Korea, too, which was always at war with Japan, wanted to prove its strength by competing with Japan - which it has succeeded in doing. It's an issue of self-respect. And it begins with educating people at a young age that they can succeed through productivity. How does one teach productivity? By investing more time and energy in vocational schools, for example, and placing them at the same level as regular high schools. This will not only reduce mistaken priorities, but will also serve industry much better, as we see in Iscar. How can you persuade Israelis to have at least as much respect for someone with a diploma from ORT as someone with a university degree? It boils down to Education Ministry priorities. The young need to be encouraged to learn a profession, not only to become lawyers or computer programmers. There's simply no respect for people with an actual vocation. As for university degrees, what some Israeli parents still seem to want for their children is not necessarily what the country needs. And their wanting it derives from a Diaspora mentality. They don't grasp that we are a new entity in the Jewish State. So you view your industrial parks as a Zionist endeavor? Yes. But Zionism needs to ensure that the Arabs thrive as well. That they have something to lose. Did you try to present your position on educational priorities to the Dovrat Commission? I attended a couple of meetings and understood that it was all about how to make the education system more efficient, not about what to teach. Let's talk about the Palestinians' education system and priorities. The PA schools indoctrinate the young to jihad and martyrdom. Can that be turned around? The Palestinians will have to decide what direction they want to go in. I have no influence there. But I believe in their abilities. They simply need encouragement. What about the Arab world as a whole? Can it really ever be open to cooperation of the kind you envision? Again, this is connected to a lack of education toward productivity and creativity. In the absence of something to occupy people, either they join the military or they're unemployed. Unemployment leads to frustration, which leads to religious fanaticism. How do you explain high unemployment levels in certain areas of this country - in the South, for example? The South has been neglected. For the past 40 years, since the Six Day War, we operated under the assumption that territory provides security, so we invested energy in settling areas [occupied after wars]. We have gradually come to learn that territory doesn't provide security. It certainly doesn't provide peace. Had we invested sufficient energy in the Galilee and the Negev, they would have been flourishing today. Had we done so, we would have been spared the gut-wrenching withdrawals from the Sinai and Gush Katif. We should be taking this into account now, as well. By the way, I used to tell [prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin to establish industrial parks in Lebanon and Syria so that they would have something valuable to lose, as opposed to talking about "territories" all the time. Furthermore, agriculture doesn't support most of the residents of the region; there's not enough water; the terrain is too rocky. To improve the standard of living, we need modern industry. There's enough space in the Negev and the Galilee to house 10 million Jews. It's a shame that everybody's sitting in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. There's a history behind that which we have to respect, but we need to create a new state in the Galilee and the Negev. We have to build places like Tefen for Jews, Arabs and everybody else in the region. This is why I have built an industrial park in Turkey. And it's working. You say that we have gradually come to learn that territory doesn't provide security or peace. Don't the events in Gaza and Lebanon illustrate that relinquishing territory doesn't provide security or peace either? In 1967, we may have had to do things differently. We should have educated our Arab neighbors in the work ethic. But we didn't have the energy. This isn't a criticism, but a statement about the limitations of the use of force to achieve peace. You have to ensure that your neighbor has something to lose by fighting you; that he is prosperous; that he has new challenges. Otherwise, you'll never have peace. That was true of Korea, the Balkans, Finland. It's true everywhere. Your industrial parks are successful private endeavors. Why, then, do you talk about the government intervening in such pursuits? How involved should the government be in industrialization? Under our complicated circumstances, the government has to encourage industry in order to create jobs, and has to educate people to work in industry. This is because the word "industry" has been downgraded, and the word "money" upgraded. Making money a goal is a Jewish trait that comes from the Diaspora, where we were a minority and didn't learn to act as a nation. Though today we have a state, we haven't yet managed to create a nation. We're still a collection of refugees from all over the world, including me and you. How can we reverse this and begin to feel secure? By creating an alternative to the conflict. We have to become part of the world in which we live and give the concept of "manufacturing/export" a completely different connotation. We are now marking the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Do you think that the United States should adopt your vision of industrialization to achieve peace and security? The whole world should adopt it. Exactly as was done in Europe after World War II. I was invited to present this to the US Congress. It was clear that everyone agreed with my vision. But, as it happened, the presentation took place exactly a week before the invasion of Iraq, so naturally it got sidelined. From a practical perspective, the Marshall Plan was the right idea: helping a destroyed Europe rebuild itself through successful industry. This is what led, eventually, to the fall of the Berlin Wall - not something else. It was the success of Western Europe that defeated Eastern Europe, and turned it into a part of the Free World. It all boils down to industry and creativity. Is this possible in Iraq today? Look, we live in the Middle East. But the Middle East doesn't really exist. It is a manufactured map drawn after World War I. Today, it is divided into two main parts: the oil-rich Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean states - Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the PA - which have no oil. The latter has a population of about 90 million, 70 million of whom are Turks. The others each have around five million. It is this dichotomy that created and fuels the conflict. We have to concern ourselves with enhancing industry in the Mediterranean. Then we have to educate our people to be industrious, not merely philosophers or soldiers. One day, this area will be industrialized through the Tefen model. The main thing is to work and succeed. This is not to say that security and defense aren't important. But I don't want to live in a bunker. Doesn't studying in a university constitute success from an Israeli or Jewish perspective? That's a historical phenomenon characteristic of minorities. Just a few generations ago, it was forbidden for my ancestors in Germany to work in most professions. It was only about 100 years ago that Jews were even allowed to join the army. The profession they were allowed to practice was money-lending or being small merchants. They were never allowed to plant trees, for example, or learn a trade. And survival instincts made them accept and live with this situation, which I call [he laughs, quipping:] "import-export-Rappaport." Isn't it also a function of Jewish culture and religion? You know, the people of the Book? Talmudic discourse? It has nothing to do with culture. It's a function of survival. I'm sure that 2,000 years ago, the Jews in Israel planted trees. They didn't plant trees in Germany or in Arab countries. Perhaps some of the problems you are trying to solve are merely a function of Israel's young age, and will resolve themselves in time. No, they're not a function of its age. Look, the massive Russian aliya has contributed greatly to the country, because Russia educated the people to work. Without them, many of our successes wouldn't be happening. Very few places of employment in Israel are as aesthetic as Tefen. Why do you put so much effort into decor, including all the artwork inside the factory and statues outdoors - and into the home-cooked three meals a day you serve? Workers are the most important people. I embrace skilled professionals. I identify with them, since I'm also a skilled laborer. They give to me; I give to them. The artwork is an expression of my respect for creativity and for people who produce beautiful things.

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