Likud minister says US backs his transportation-based peace initiative
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Likud minister says US backs his transportation-based peace initiative

Yisrael Katz plans to connect Israel and the Palestinians with Jordan, the Gulf states and Iraq via an extended railroad network

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz at a press conference held at the Ministry of Transport regarding the creation of an artificial island off the Gaza coast, which would contain a port, power and water desalination plants, and an airport, April 5, 2017 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz at a press conference held at the Ministry of Transport regarding the creation of an artificial island off the Gaza coast, which would contain a port, power and water desalination plants, and an airport, April 5, 2017 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz on Wednesday said the Trump administration has expressed its support for his regional peace initiative, which is based on plans to connect Israel, the Palestinians, Jordan the Gulf states and even Iraq via an extended railroad network.

Katz said he presented his plan to US envoy Jason Greenblatt during his visit to Jerusalem last month in a long and detailed discussion. Greenblatt expressed “very keen interest and very deep appreciation” for the plans,” the Likud minister, who is also the minister of intelligence, said during a press conference in his Jerusalem office.

“He said that he would enlist the president and the entire administration” in support of his plan, Katz said.

Responding to a Times of Israel query on behalf of Greenblatt, a White House official said the proposal was “interesting,” but said the US does not yet have an informed position on it.

“While in the region, Jason Greenblatt was on a listening tour. He heard many interesting ideas, including this one. But this is not a US policy decision, rather it is something for the parties and those in the region to work out together,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Additionally, at this time, the US does not have sufficient details on these ideas to have an informed position on this.”

Since their March 16 meeting, Katz said he has remained in touch with Greenblatt, Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, regarding the project and intends “to continue these contacts, with the prime minister’s involvement, with the US, other states in the world and in the region.”

Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations, Jason Greenblatt meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Monday, March 13, 2017. (Photo Credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)
Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations, Jason Greenblatt meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Monday, March 13, 2017. (Photo Credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)

The minister said he also told Greenblatt about his plan to build an artificial island off the coast of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, to facilitate the flow of goods to the Palestinian enclave.

The island, proposed at some 534 hectares (1,320 acres) and at a cost of approximately $5 billion, would include infrastructure to provide Gaza with essential services it currently lacks, including desalination facilities for clean water and an electricity plant, a freight harbor and an area for container storage, which Katz says will help open the Gazan economy to the outside world and a bridge would connect it to Gaza, with one portion acting as a drawbridge. An airport could be considered at a later stage.

The plan is designed to alleviate humanitarian conditions in Gaza, which has been under a blockade by Israel and Egypt for a decade, since Hamas overthrew rival Fatah in a bloody coup in 2007. Israel and Gaza-based terror groups, including Hamas, have fought three wars since 2008.

UN officials have called for the blockade to be lifted, but Israel says it is necessary to keep Hamas from obtaining weapons or materials to make them.

With the proposed island, a key point for Katz would be for Israel to control security around it and in the port, in order to ensure Israeli security by preventing the entry of materiels that could be used for attacks against Israeli civilians, with threats such as rockets and tunnels a major concern.

Katz has pushed his idea of an artificial island for several years now, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the rest of the security cabinet never adopted it. Greenblatt, on the other hand, was very interested in the idea, Katz said.

The Transportation Ministry's plan for an artificial island off the Gaza coast, which would contain a port, power and water desalination plants, and an airport. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The Transportation Ministry’s plan for an artificial island off the Gaza coast, which would contain a port, power and water desalination plants, and an airport. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Katz’s main initiative, entitled “Tracks for Regional Peace,” is based on the planned extension of railway tracks in northern Israel. The idea is for Israel to be connected with the Jordanian railroad network, which in turn will be linked to that of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states, thus creating a regional transportation system to enhance trade relations and promote peaceful coexistence.

“There are two central components at the heart of this initiative,” Katz explained, “Israel as a land bridge between Europe and the Mediterranean and Jordan, and Jordan as a regional transportation hub, which will be connected to a railroad system to Israel and the Mediterranean in the West, to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Iraq in the East and southeast and to the Red Sea, through Aqaba and Eilat in the south.”

Connecting Israelis and Palestinians with the Sunni Arab world would dramatically increase trade and lay the groundwork for a future regional peace, argued Katz, who opposes Palestinian statehood.

He said he discussed his project with various leaders in the Arab world but declined to elaborate.

“They are not foreign to the matter. There were and will be substantive debates with them. I am certainly optimistic about the ability to advance these matters,” he said.

Katz, who has been transportation minister since 2009, wants to extend the existing Haifa-Beit She’an line eastward to connect with the Jordanian city of Irbid; and southward to connect with the Palestinian areas around the West Bank city of Jenin.

The project will create alternative trade routes between the various countries, enabling quicker, cheaper and safer commercial relations, Katz said.

“Beyond its contribution to Israel’s economy, the Jordanian and the Palestinian economies, the initiative will connect Israel economically and politically to the region and will consolidate the pragmatic camp in the region,” he claimed.

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