Billionaire Bets on Arabs of Nazareth To Advance Dream for Israel

For Stef Wertheimer, Peace Path Runs Through Industrial Park

Picture of Opportunity: Israeli tycoon Stef Wertheimer expects the $22 million he has sunk into this shiny industrial park in the predominantly Arab town of Nazareth to pay dividends — in more ways than one.
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Picture of Opportunity: Israeli tycoon Stef Wertheimer expects the $22 million he has sunk into this shiny industrial park in the predominantly Arab town of Nazareth to pay dividends — in more ways than one.

By Nathan Jeffay

Published June 23, 2013, issue of June 28, 2013.
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Still, not everyone is convinced that the project is poised for success. Only around 40% of the space is currently rented, and Nazareth resident Amal Ayoub, thought to be the first Arab woman to head a startup in Israel, said that she is unsure how much this will increase.

According to Ayoub, the Arab sector lacks homegrown businesses and the skills to generate them. Furthermore, she said, the government is not taking an initiative to change any of this. The park “will be empty unless the government brings industry to the Arab sector,” she said.

But Nazareth’s mayor, Ramez Jaraisi, who attended the opening voiced enthusiasm about the project. If it goes as he hopes, the park will generate employment and municipal taxes for his city.

Wertheimer has spent the past six decades making tools. His company, Iscar, is a metalworking giant. But in early May, Wertheimer agreed that Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. would acquire the remaining 20% of Iscar for $2.05 billion, having bought 80% back in 2006 for $4 billion. Now, despite his age, he discusses the sale of Iscar with the excitement and single-mindedness of a teenager who has just earned the money to purchase a coveted concert ticket.

“I deal with building the country,” he said, insisting that he is not just another one of the country’s tycoons. “[If] I happen to make money with it, then fine.”

Wertheimer’s path to what he hopes is this pivotal movement has been a circuitous one. In his interview with the Forward, he recalled his foray into politics in 1977, representing the centrist Democratic Movement for Change and then the Shinui party, and admitted, “I don’t think I succeeded so much.” In 1981 he left the Knesset and set about his vision to effect change through industrial parks. He calls this a “capitalistic kibbutz system” to nurture industry.

Wertheimer established six Israeli parks before developing Nazareth, all of them outside the country’s central urban regions and in places where they brought together Jews and Arabs. He dreamed of setting up Israeli-Palestinian parks and parks in neighboring Arab countries, but political factors didn’t allow it. He eventually settled on a park in Turkey. The parks currently break even but don’t make a profit — and he’s satisfied with this.

Wertheimer is convinced that if good employment opportunities are in place, support among Arabs for radicalism will wane, with people “too tired” after a hard day’s work to even think about aggression. Moreover, if these opportunities require interaction with Jews, he believes, positive relationships will be forged and hatred banished.

“The Galilee is a quiet place because people have to deliver on time; they don’t have time to quarrel,” he said, adding, “I believe that anybody who has to export, and who believes in skills, gets away from fighting about history.”

Beyond this busy-people-won’t-fight belief there is an underlying ideological complexity.


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