October 24, 2017 6:56 pm JST
Israel invites Japan to spearhead rail project to Saudi Arabia
Minister offers a 25-year lease of the port where the route would start
ELI GARSHOWITZ, Nikkei staff writer
JERUSALEM -- Israel's transportation minister on Tuesday embarked on a three-day visit to Japan armed with far-reaching proposals that could radically transform the geopolitical landscape.
Israel Katz, who doubles as minister of intelligence, will invite Japanese participation in multibillion-dollar projects to dramatically improve infrastructure in the Middle East. His country's goal, he told the Nikkei Asian Review in an exclusive interview, is to establish itself "as the ultimate gateway between Europe, the Mediterranean and the Gulf countries, to transport goods from east to west and bridge three continents."
Katz, 62, intends to propose ambitious, unprecedented cooperation between Israel and the Sunni Arab world, along with simultaneous plans to help the Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank. His plan is twofold: One part would consist of a land bridge dubbed "Tracks for Peace." The second would be an artificial island off the Gaza Strip.
It all starts with Israel's main existing port in the city of Haifa, which is to be offered to Japan on a 25-year lease. This is not the first time Israel has turned to an Asian country for cooperation there: In 2015, China's Shanghai International Port Group was the sole and winning bidder for the rights to run a new, $1 billion second port scheduled to open in 2021.
From this strategic Mediterranean hub runs a recently revived railway line, which was built by the Ottoman Turks over 100 years ago and shut down by the British in 1946. Known today as the old/new Valley Line, the 60km of track became operational again last year. It cuts across Israel's narrow north to the town of Beit Shean, and ends at the Sheikh Hussein Bridge on the Jordanian border.
The idea is to connect this line to an envisioned 200km stretch that would ultimately link up with an existing, functional line in the area of Al Hadithah, Saudi Arabia. Jordan's own national plans call for creating a railway hub to the east of the Irbid-Mafraq axis, in the north, which could connect the line to Iraq as well.
Currently, thousands of trucks arrive annually at the Haifa port by ferry from Turkey, then drive across Israel carrying goods to the Arab world via Jordan. With the railway in place, the cargo could be shipped to Haifa and sent by train straight to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
"This initiative will create an alternative east-west freight line route, which will be shorter, faster, cheaper and even safer, in view of the Iranian threats to maritime routes in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and in the Red Sea," Katz said.
Few Sunni countries have official diplomatic ties with Israel. Jordan is one of the few -- they signed a peace treaty back in 1994 -- and Israel recognizes that a strong and peaceful neighbor on its eastern border is a strategic asset. A healthy Jordanian economy contributes to political stability.
At the same time, mutual interests and concerns have sparked close discussions between Israel and some Gulf Cooperation Council states, despite the lack of formal ties.