business

In The Galilee: Praying For High Tech Manna

Horns blare behind my borrowed Subaru as I lurch into first gear. Just ahead, a rusty dump truck filled with tomatoes lumbers uphill. Raised en automatic transmissions, I am tackling my first stick shift here on the winding mountain roads of Israel's Galilee. I pray I won't stall.

This is not the best place for driving lessons--but there's none finer for prayer. The truck clears the hill, and so does the Subaru. Cheers from my passenger, Leah: artist, tour guide, cousin, and now, driving instructor.

We are headed for the 13-year-old mountain settlement of Gilon, in the Galilee's Misgav region, where Leah lives with her husband, Shlomo, a chemical engineer, and their three children. I first saw these biblical vistas 12 years ago: rocky hillsides, roadside villages, olive groves, sheep, barefoot children. Now, new developments, shopping centers, and gas stations dot the view.

Back in the 1970s, government and private planners envisioned a high-tech industrial belt in this rural region stretching east of Haifa to the Golan Heights and north to Lebanon. The dream was for entrepreneurs from the science and technical institutes of Haifa to spawn new businesses.

SLOW GOING. Migrants have come, but more in a trickle than a flood. Most commute to jobs in Haifa or elsewhere: More than half of the Galilee's work force works outside the region. Residents grumble about inadequate roads, phones, and other infrastructure.

I turn off the main highway for Gilon. When I first visited from the U.S., Gilon was 15 concrete huts and a water tank hugging a stony hillside. "It was like camping--fun, with many problems," Leah recalls. Each household had an assigned time to run appliances on small, unreliable generators. In summer, the water supply, under the Mediterranean sun, was too hot to drink. And there was a crop of babies to cope with. At the time, it seemed romantic. Now, with two young children of my own, I wonder how I would have managed.

Gilon now boasts 80 suburban-style houses, and more are under construction. There are landscaped yards, a day-care center, and a playground. My cousins' new, 1,400-square-foot home is ringed with fruit trees. Down the road is a general store, and it's a half-hour to Karmiel, the big town hereabouts.

Gilon's founders, most of them engineers from Haifa's Technion Institute, came as idealists. "We wanted to bring in more Jews," then a minority in the Galilee and now roughly half the population, "without disturbing the neighbors," says Shlomo. In love with the beauty of the place, they dreamed of a friendly, family-oriented community.

In nearby Ya'ad, other Technion grads established a moshav, or economic cooperative. Izzy Gal, an electronics engineer, and his wife, computer engineer Yael Gal, founded BOS--Better On-Line Solutions--two years ago. Sales of its PC software were projected at $1.5 million for 1992. Government loan guarantees cover two-thirds of working capital and equipment needs, and profits are tax-exempt for six years.

But high-value-added technology enterprises are still the exception. "It's not Silicon Valley. This is not where R&D is done, it's where circuit boards are soldered," admits Don Jacobson, a planner for the Jewish Agency, which aids rural settlement in Israel. Large businesses, he says, have used development subsidies to relocate low-skilled manufacturing jobs here.

RUSSIANS. Still, American-born Jacobson believes in a prosperous, high-tech future. "Immigration changed the game," he argues. New immigrants represent "unbelievable human capital," he says. Russians have doubled the population of Karmiel alone to more than 30,000 in just a few years. Nearly half these recent arrivals have degrees, many in technical fields. The demand for housing, meanwhile, has set off a building frenzy and made the mountain settlements more attractive. Indeed, in Karmiel's mall, thronged with browsers, shoppers, and families escaping the heat, there's an unmistakable boomtown feeling despite high local unemployment.

A two-year college in Karmiel is expanding into BS programs in biotechnology, electronics, and electro-optics, Jacobson notes. And just to the north lies Iscar Ltd., a state-of-the-art maker of industrial cutting tools with $200 million in annual sales.

In 1990, to nurture more startups, the Misgav regional council set up an "incubator." Director David Slyper counsels 57 ventures, helping them to get funding, write business plans, and cut red tape. Slyper introduces me to Ganadi Bolotin, late of St. Petersburg, now working on a textile-cleaning technique that could be a boon to garment manufacturers. Scientist Bolotin is advised to "think like a businessman," a big leap for someone raised under Soviet rule.

Crossing the Misgav, past fields of melons and sunflowers, Slyper points out a medical-equipment plant, a hosiery mill, a fish farm, and an industrial-automation equipment designer. Some are independent and profitable; others are nascent. We stop at Teradion, where a new 100-acre industrial park might employ up to 5,000 people in high-tech jobs by the year 2000.

ODD COUPLE. Slyper's incubator reaches out to Arab entrepreneurs, too. One is seeking ways to use residue from olive pressing as heating oil or lubricant. The most socially interesting hatchling is a partnership between Yosi Shemony, a Jewish electronics engineer, and Muhammad Gith, an Arab science teacher, mechanical engineer, builder, and coal importer, from the ancient town of Arraba. They have patented a device to measure the quantity of gold in jewelry.

Gith, with jewelers in the family, had tinkered with the problem for years. He took his idea to Shemony, then acting as a business consultant to inventors. The two hit it off, says Gith, offering a bowl of homegrown watermelon in his living room one morning. "There was personal chemistry," adds Shemony.

While such friendships are still unusual, constructive links between Arabs and Jews seem to be multiplying in the Galilee. Arab contractors build Gilon's new homes. Shlomo and Leah see a dentist, fix their car, and buy coffee in Arab villages. Public services in those villages are surely poorer than in Jewish communities, but development has brought more affluence to the Galilee's Arabs.

Prosperity and neighborliness seem unmistakable at Tamra, an Arab-owned nightclub on the Gilon-Karmiel road. In a palatial setting, with amusements for kids, banquet halls, and dining pavilions, Tamra has a well-dressed clientele that one evening includes Moslems, Christians, and Jews. Three Arab weddings, with thousands of guests, are under way. "There isn't a crumb of baklava left," apologizes our waiter.

"The cultural gap narrows," reflects Slyper as we drive through Arraba. "Where there is an economic interest in peaceful cooperation, it has happened. More cooperation will occur, and I think our area will lead in that."

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