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Wednesday, 17 July, 2002, 12:36 GMT 13:36 UK
Israeli tycoon urges help for Palestinians
One week before a groundbreaking ceremony at a joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial park on the outskirts of the Gaza Strip, the latest Intifada broke out.
Two years later, thousands of Israelis and Palestinians are dead.
There is no peace process, and both societies are in the grip of economic crises.
One could forgive Mr Wertheimer, the 76-year-old chairman and founder of manufacturing giant Iscar, if he were to devote his energies to shoring up his billion dollar empire, or considering retirement.
But the man whose companies are responsible for 10% of Israel's economic output is still surprisingly optimistic.
And he is armed with a new plan to transform the Middle East.
Dubbed the "mini-Marshall Plan," after the scheme which helped rebuild Europe after World War II, Mr Wertheimer is calling for massive injections of cash into the eastern Mediterranean - Jordan, Turkey, the Palestinian territories and Israel's minority populations - in an effort to stabilise the region.
The plan's aim is to ensure a GDP per capita of at least $6,000 per year for the region's inhabitants.
According to Mr Wertheimer, that figure has historically led to democratisation and cools the flames of fundamentalism that drive people to follow the likes of Osama bin Laden.
"People are dangerous when they have nothing to lose," says Wertheimer, in an interview at the Tefen Industrial Park in the northern Galilee, one of four such parks he has founded in Israel.
Rise to riches
Wertheimer's firm Iscar, is one of the world's top two manufacturers of carbide cutting tools, instruments used in the automotive, aerospace and electronics industries.
His company's annual sales are close to $1bn and growing at a 30% annual rate.
Yet he started out in the region as a refugee, aged 10, from Nazi Germany.
Mr Wertheimer trained in the then Palestine as a pilot, and served as a close technical aide to the revered Israeli general Yigal Allon in the 1948 War of Independence.
When Charles de Gaulle embargoed all French weapons to Israel in 1967, Wertheimer began to manufacture jet engine blades - freeing the Israeli Air Force from dependence on imports of the products.
Today, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls Royce have joined forces with Mr Wertheimer's Blades Technologies to create Blades Technologies International, which makes airfoils for gas turbine engines.
Under the mini-Marshall plan, Jordan would be the first country to receive aid.
Wertheimer wants to raise $1bin each year for the next four years for Jordan.
The funds would be designated for infrastructure and manufacturing, not social welfare. and should not pass through government hands.
Instead, an institution such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank should handle the money.
Earlier this month, Wertheimer met World Bank president James Wolfensohn, who he says expressed "great interest" in the plan.
"Jordan is eager to transform itself into a modern nation," Mr Wertheimer says.
"If Jordan flourishes, it will serve as a model for the entire region.
"Its neighbours - Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria, for example - will hopefully see that the way to create a better, safer society is by raising the standard of living of its inhabitants."
Oded Eran, Israel's former ambassador to Jordan, believes Wertheimer's plan has a fighting chance.
"It's certainly an ambitious program and I totally support it," says Mr Eran, who was at Tefen to consult with Wertheimer on some of the plan's logistics.
Another supporter is Omar Salah, a Jordanian businessman who has built factories in Jordanian industrial zones.
"A Marshall Plan can do far more than military efforts in terms of bringing stability to the region," Mr Salah told the Los Angeles Times earlier this year.
Palestinians are more cautious.
They are concerned that the trust which briefly characterised Israeli-Palestinian relations before October 2000 has been irrevocably severed.
As Israel maintains a tight curfew of almost all West Bank cities, Palestinians are less interested in Wertheimer's ambitious long-term plan than they are in day to day economic survival.
Israelis are also sceptical.
Following the wave of suicide bombings and violence emanating out of the territories in the past two years, even the Israeli peace camp talks more about separation from the Palestinians than about partnership and co-existence.
Mr Wertheimer, though, is unfazed.
"Quite frankly, helping the Palestinians economically is the best thing for Israel," he says.
"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."
But the amount of money required to implement the mini-Marshall Plan is beyond even Mr Wertheimer's personal means.
So far, the industrialist has met with government officials in the US, Germany, England and other Western nations to solicit support.
He describes these nations as "very interested" in contributing money to the project, particularly the US government.
On July 24, Mr Wertheimer has a meeting in Washington with Henry Hyde, chairman of the US House of Representatives International Relations Committee.
And earlier this month, his ideas were well received in a meeting with Elizabeth Cheney, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and daughter of US Vice-President Dick Cheney.
So while the political process in the region is frozen, the industrialist acknowledges that he probably will not see the fruits of his labour.
But with four children, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, Mr Wertheimer has good reason to invest in the future.
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