Bepi Pezzulli
International counsel & foreign policy adviser

The Ben Gurion Canal: Vision Amidst Upheaval

The Ben Gurion Canal compared to the Suez Canal. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
The Ben Gurion Canal compared to the Suez Canal. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Amidst the persistent turmoil engulfing Gaza, an ambitious vision conceived over six decades ago has reappeared in the public discourse, seizing attention and sparking debates on regional geopolitics and economic strategy.

Born in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis of 1956, the notion of the Ben Gurion Canal resurfaces today, offering a tantalizing glimpse into a future where maritime trade and regional dynamics in the Middle East undergo profound transformation. The 1963 concept paper by Howard D. MacCabee has remained classified for 30 years. Despite its release in 1996, it flew under the radar.

The Legacy of the Suez Crisis. The Suez Crisis of 1956 reverberated across the global stage, leaving an indelible mark on diplomatic and political landscapes that resonates to this day. Straining relations among major powers—such as the UK, France, and Israel on one side, and Egypt, supported by the United States and the Soviet Union on the other—it heralded the waning influence of the British Empire and the ascent of the USA and USSR as dominant Cold War players. The crisis culminated in Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, triggering military actions by Israel, France, and the UK. Yet, international pressure, particularly from the USA and USSR, compelled their eventual withdrawal, underscoring the limitations of post-colonial military intervention. The disastrous outcome of the Suez Crisis, which, thirty years later, Lady Margaret Thatcher would recall as the most important political lesson for her generation, forced British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden to step down after a mere 2 years in power and retire from political life, making way for Harold Macmillan. It also exacerbated tensions in the Middle East and contributed to a sense of Arab nationalism and unity, with Nasser emerging as a prominent leader in the region. Finally, it heightened Arab-Israeli tensions, leading to further conflicts in the subsequent years. Economically, the Suez Crisis plunged global trade routes into disarray, exposing the vulnerability of chokepoints like the Suez Canal and prompting investments in alternative transit methods.

The Ben Gurion Canal: A Vision Revived. Named in homage to Israel’s founder, the Ben Gurion Canal project envisioned a monumental waterway connecting Eilat on the Red Sea to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean Sea. Charting a course through the rugged terrain straddling Israel and Jordan, its proponents envisioned a route that would circumvent traditional bottlenecks and alleviate congestion plaguing the Suez Canal. This bold infrastructure endeavour held the promise of reshaping global trade patterns and reducing reliance on existing maritime routes. Today, it holds the added promise of expanding on the Abraham Accords, by seamlessly connecting to Saudi Arabia via NEOM, the futuristic new city poised on the shores of the Red Sea.

The prospect for the Ben Gurion Canal gains further traction in light of the recently forged UK-India Infrastructure Bridge, solidifying ties between London and New Delhi. Through the rejuvenation of the historic Cotton Route and bolstering infrastructure connectivity between India and Gulf nations, Israel finds itself increasingly positioned strategically. This ambitious initiative aims to establish robust connections linking India and Gulf states, extending to Israel, via an integrated network of railways and maritime ports. Envisioned to enhance commercial and energy flows from South Asia to the Persian Gulf and onward to the Mediterranean, it ultimately extends its reach into Europe. With Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil exporter and the United Arab Emirates serving as the financial hub of the Middle East, both nations have long sought to secure their vital commercial and energy corridors against potential disruptions. Recent events, such as the conflict in Gaza and assaults on vessels in the Red Sea by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, have heightened concerns. Consequently, major stakeholders in the shipping sector have temporarily suspended the use of Egypt’s Suez Canal.

The Ben Gurion Canal would have a world-scale impact: the redundancy of waterways would put an end to the congestion of the Suez Canal. Additionally, the fragility of the connection between the two seas, as exemplified by the Ever Given incident, would be reduced.  The Ever Given disaster occurred in the Suez Canal in March 2021 when the large container ship, Ever Given, became lodged sideways across the canal, blocking traffic in both directions. The incident led to a significant disruption in global trade. Efforts to refloat the ship involved dredging and the assistance of tugboats. The incident garnered widespread attention and highlighted the vulnerabilities of global supply chains, causing delays and financial losses for numerous industries. Ultimately, the Ever Given was successfully refloated after about a week, allowing traffic to resume through the canal. But the incident prompted discussions about the need for improved navigation and contingency plans for similar emergencies in the future.

At the core of the discourse surrounding the Ben Gurion Canal lies the economic and strategic imperative of decoupling from the Suez Canal, which presently handles 12% of global trade. Economically pivotal as a vital shortcut for maritime transportation between Europe and Asia, the Suez Canal’s significance is underscored by its substantial revenue generation ($9.4b in 2023) and strategic control over global trade and energy markets.

Decoupling in a Changing World. The prospect of decoupling from the Suez Canal—amidst heightened geopolitical tensions and evolving global dynamics—has assumed newfound urgency. Recent geopolitical tremors have reignited interest in the Ben Gurion Canal, with media outlets across the Arab world expressing apprehension over its potential revival by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Decoupling has emerged as a strategic imperative in the wake of seismic global events, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Concerns over economic interdependence, geopolitical stability, and energy security have prompted Western nations to intensify efforts to diversify supply chains, bolster domestic energy production, and forge international partnerships.

Charting a Course Forward. Back in the 60s, the realization of the Ben Gurion Canal faced formidable challenges, including opposition from the USA and logistical hurdles inherent in such a grandiose undertaking. The proposed use of nuclear explosives for excavation, as detailed in a declassified memorandum from the US Department of Energy, illustrated the audacity of the project and the complexities involved in its implementation. Today, as the Middle East grapples with mounting geopolitical strains and the spectre of broader conflict looms, the discourse surrounding the Ben Gurion Canal assumes renewed significance. Given the crucible of contemporary crises, the time may be ripe to revisit the transformative potential of the Ben Gurion Canal.

About the Author
Giuseppe Levi Pezzulli ("Bepi") is a Solicitor specialised in International financial law and a foreign policy scholar. His research interest is economic statecraft. In 2018, he published "An alternative view of Brexit" (Milano Finanza Books), which investigates the economic and geopolitical implications of Brexit. In 2023, "Brave bucks" (Armando Publishing House), which highlights the role of private capital in the industrial policy mix. Formerly an Editor-in-Chief of La Voce Repubblicana; is a columnist for the Italian daily financial newspaper Milano Finanza; a pundit for the financial TV channel CNBC; and a Middle East analyst for Longitude magazine. He received degrees at Luiss Guido Carli in Rome (LLB), New York University (LLM), and Columbia University (JD).
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