Public announcement of a joint Israeli-Chinese plan to construct a rail link between Eilat and Ashdod ports carefully avoided mentioning Egypt, but the connection is inescapable. The Egyptian economy is in distress and unlikely to prosper anytime soon. The central government already struggles to maintain security in Sinai and the large portion of Egypt South of Lake Nasser. Failure to turn the economy around could unleash catastrophic upheaval beyond anything we have seen in the last year or so. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to question Cairo’s ability to keep the Suez Canal secure.
There could soon be an alternative. The Israeli Cabinet recently decided on a $5 billion project to expand two Israeli ports, Eilat on the Red Sea and Ashdod on the Mediterranean, and create high-speed rail links between them. Last week, Minister of Transportation Israel Katz travelled to China where he signed a memorandum of understanding with his Chinese counterpart, Li Shenglin. According to Israel’s Globes business newspaper, the Chinese will finance part of the project through the China Development Industrial Bank. Globes reports that “the 180-kilometer line will run through the Arava Valley and Nahal Zinn,” linking to and upgrading existing railway in Israel and cutting travel time between Tel Aviv and Eilat to just two hours. A spur may be added to the Jordanian port of Aqaba, another tangible benefit from that country’s peaceful relations with Israel.
The Suez Canal handles 7–8% of the world’s commercial shipping, and in specific markets the percentage is much higher. While the economics of the canal route vary with fuel prices and fluctuations in the shipping market, the main current alternative for shipping between Asia and Europe is a costly trip around the southern coast of Africa. The website of the Suez Canal Authority shows how use of the canal reduces the distance traveled by freight between Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and Piraeus, Greece, by 88%. It reduces Jeddah-Rotterdam travel by 41%, and travel from the Gulf to Rotterdam by 42%. According to the Canal Authority, even where Asian nations have the option of traversing the Pacific and using the Panama Canal to reach New York, the Suez route has advantages: from the Gulf to New York through Suez saves 30%.
The strategic location of Israel between the Red and Mediterranean Seas makes it a perfect land bridge, enjoying similar savings in distance and time. To be sure, cargo must be transferred to rail and reloaded at the opposite end, but this is often already the case when large ships reach the canal. But will cargo out of Saudi Arabia traverse Israeli railways? It is hard to imagine, but economic interests have an eloquence many find persuasive.
Chinese participation in the project raises speculation about its interest in the land link. Unmentioned in the press releases from both countries is the matter of natural gas and oil. The Chinese offer an insatiable market for reliable fuel supplies, and they have a particularly urgent interest in guarantying delivery in the event of dysfunction in the Suez Canal. They offer Israel a vastly enhanced economic role in linking the East with the West and a strong base on which to build its own “turn toward the Pacific.”
Greek and Cypriot leaders may wonder how the land link impacts on proposed pipelines to Europe through the two countries. Israeli sources tell AJC that it may make sense to build both a Europe-directed pipeline through Cyprus to Greece and the land link to the East, but the matter is not resolved.
The enhancement of Israel’s role as a link between East and West could shift some “realist” thinking about Israel. Israel providing a dependable and necessary international commercial link whose security is a multinational interest challenges the “hard-nosed” argument that Israel is a burden on the West. Traditional foreign policy establishments in certain countries may discover a reason to review and revise their sometimes knee-jerk impatience with the predicaments Jerusalem faces. The land link could provide an enhanced incentive to the parties to move forward with the peace process, particularly if a creative way can be found to fold the Palestinians into some of the benefits.
Israel, for its part, may discover it has interests that require greater investment in the international community. For example, as Israel strengthens its navy to protect its natural gas and oil fields in the Mediterranean, it may develop greater commitment to helping protect the international shipping lanes. After all, West African piracy reduces Suez Canal traffic by 10% and will do the same to the land link if unchecked.