WASHINGTON — On December 4, 2008, exactly 40 years after returning from a tour as an infantryman in the Vietnam War, United States Senator Chuck Hagel spoke of peace. “When I think of jobs and improving people’s conditions,” he told the nonpartisan Israel Policy Forum, “I think of what Stef Wertheimer has been doing in Turkey and Israel.” Hagel explained that Wertheimer — one of Israel’s wealthiest men — “has five very high-tech industrial base firms in Turkey and Israel. They’re planning twenty more. I’ve been there. I’ve seen them. Here he has Palestinians and Israelis and Jews working side by side in these plants, and he is helping educate their children. They have futures, they have opportunities. This is not some idealistic dream, in fact it’s happened.”
Three years later, in an address to the graduating class at Tuft University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Hagel’s Senate colleague and fellow Vietnam veteran, Senator John Kerry, declared that “We are again in desperate need of a Marshall Plan for the Middle East” because “in the end, nothing will be more important than helping to build a better economic future for the Middle East as a whole.”
Today, these two advocates of economic engagement are poised to become America’s next Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State. At a time when the Israeli-Palestinian peace process only seems to move backwards, both offer painfully-won knowledge of the horrors of war, and a needed willingness to consider other approaches. They recognize that if the leaders of Israel, Hamas and Fatah are unwilling to find political solutions, maybe it’s time for America to work with business leaders to drive economic solutions.
The idea of a Marshall Plan for the Middle East has been suggested by everyone from the dean of Columbia Business School to the leader of the Syrian rebels. The New York Times‘ David Brooks has gone so far as to propose a $50 “Marshall Plan Tax” whenever anyone recommends such a program. Nor is everyone convinced that a WWII-era policy named for then-Secretary of State George C. Marshall — through which the U.S. provided massive grants, loans and technical assistance to rebuild post-war Europe while preventing the spread of Soviet communism — translates so easily to an unstable region known for corruption and tribal loyalties.
Yet Stef Wertheimer’s Marshall-inspired industrial parks are something different, consisting not just of economic development, but technical education, cross-cultural communities and art museums — home. Nestled in the foothills of the Galilee, his flagship Tefen Industrial Park draws a steady stream of startups and visitors, as impressed by the high-performing businesses as they are by the Israeli and Palestinian residents who happily co-exist. Wertheimer — a highly-respected entrepreneur who fled Nazi persecution and fought for Israeli Independence before founding a small metal tool cutting business — jokingly calls this his “capitalist kibbutz,” but a more appropriate name might be “Marshall Parks.”
Wertheimer runs seven such parks — six in Israel, one in Turkey — which he proudly informs me have helped launch more than 200 export firms, create over 5,500 jobs and generate over $1 billion in sales. The Middle East manufactures only two percent of the globe’s goods — compared to 60 percent of the world’s oil — yet more than a tenth of Israel’s industrial exports trace their origin to Wertheimer’s model.
His dream — Wertheimer’s Marshall Plan — is a string of 100 industrial parks stretching from Turkey to Egypt, employing and training equal numbers of Israelis and Arabs while giving shaky Arab states the industrial base from which to launch modern economies.
For a few tantalizing months in the 1990s that dream seemed in reach. “I personally went to Gaza in the late 1990s to meet with Yasser Arafat and secured his agreement to build an industrial park there,” Wertheimer tells me. There were signed agreements from two Israeli Prime Ministers — Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu — in addition to commitments from Daimler Chrysler, Sidney Harman and other business leaders. A week before ground broke the Second Intifada began, derailing plans.
Ever the industrious industrialist, Wertheimer continued to marshal support for his stalled project, testifying before Congress in 2002 and impressing the likes of George Mitchell and Liz Cheney until the Iraq War diverted U.S. attention. As international interest waned with each new wave of violence, Wertheimer’s did as well, though he continues to plead his case to anyone who will listen. His newest plant — in the largely Arab city of Nazareth — opens this month, but Wertheimer still yearns to build in the Palestinian Territories where the impact would be greatest.
At the moment, however, Israel seems as resistant as ever to improving its untenable situation. In November, rocket attacks from Gaza nearly precipitated an Israeli ground operation, and to the north, Israel is constructing another wall to prevent the chaos in Syria from spilling across the border. Israel’s upcoming elections will almost certainly return to power a fractured but increasingly hardline coalition of nationalists and religious right-wingers. Meanwhile, despite the Palestinian Authority achieving “observer status” at the U.N., Palestinians remain badly divided between Hamas and Fatah, their government nearly bankrupt.
Still, as Gilead Sher, a former Camp David negotiator and now co-chair of the pro-peace organization Blue White Future, wryly tells me, “The circumstances never seem to be right for any initiative, a fact that makes any time right for such an initiative.”
With traditional diplomacy at a standstill — and the likely elevation of two U.S. cabinet secretaries committed to the soft power of economic development — now is the perfect time to recommit to constructing these Marshall Parks. Building five across Jordan would cost a relatively paltry $1 billion over five years. The cost of a single $150 million F-22 Raptor fighter jet, Wertheimer notes, would fund the initial cost of constructing seven parks. They could quickly be replicated in the West Bank and Gaza, creating a free trade zone benefiting Israelis, Palestinians and Egyptians.
The model and the motivation are there — all that’s missing is the money. Just as it successfully did in post-war Europe — and more recently in Northern Ireland under President Bill Clinton ahead of peace talks — the U.S. government can encourage the investment that will sow the dividends of peace. If international business executives can join with local leaders to take a leap of faith, these industrial parks will take off.
Before long, Wertheimer says, “the parks can usher in an era in which production, exports, education and an advanced quality of life can replace terrorism and poverty.” He adds, “Quite frankly, helping the Palestinians economically is the best thing for Israel. When you’re sitting down for dinner and you’ve got food on your plate and the people around you don’t, it’s dangerous. Israel will be a lot safer if the people in our region have more food on their own plates.”
It was the Biblical prophet Isaiah — revered by Jews and Muslims alike — whose oft-quoted words command us to beat our swords into plowshares, and our spears into pruning hooks. Melting weapons of war into instruments of a productive peace has always been a goal worth chasing. With a few industrial parks, it might just be a goal within reach.