'Despite great pessimism, I actually see opportunity'

In rare remarks to Saudis, minister says Riyadh could broker peace deal

Yisrael Katz also envisions rail link between Haifa and Gulf to bypass Iran, in interview with London-based Saudi-owned news site

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, in his office in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 9, 2017. (AP/Dan Balilty)
Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, in his office in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 9, 2017. (AP/Dan Balilty)

Saudi Arabia sponsoring Israel-Palestinian peace talks alongside the US, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman visiting Israel, a rail linking Haifa to the Kingdom generating hundreds of billions of dollars in trade between Israel and the Gulf.

The vision could be a reality, Israel’s transport and intelligence minister Yisrael Katz told a Saudi news site in a rare interview published Wednesday, playing up hopes for normalized ties between the two states already said to have a covert relationship.

The interview was published as Islamic leaders, angered by US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem last week as Israel’s capital, met in Istanbul and urged recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. Saudi King Salman stayed away from the summit, but also declared that the Palestinians had “the right to establish their independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

Katz’s remarks were the latest in a series of interviews granted by senior Israeli officials to London-based Arab news site Elaph, an outlet owned by a businessman in Saudi Arabia, in a sign of growing comfort in Jerusalem with Riyadh amid mutual fears of Iranian hegemony in the region.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting in Riyadh, November 14, 2017. (AFP/Fayez Nureldine)

The countries remain officially enemies, though, and the invitation to the powerful crown prince was allegedly edited out of the interview, according to Israeli accounts, highlighting the gaping gulf that remains between the countries.

A Likud minister, Katz is seen as close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and has said he will run for leadership of the party when Netanyahu exits the stage.

In the interview, Katz described Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab world and suggested that it take on the role of sponsoring a peace initiative with the Palestinians.

The Israeli public — feeling the “positive winds” blowing from  Saudi Arabia — was ready for such an initiative, he went on, and “with Saudi leadership, I’d be prepared to go to negotiations.”

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, center right, points to a map during a meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Tara Kono, left, during an official visit to Japan, October 24, 2017. (Courtesy)

It was important to think out of the box and not to come with same old ideas, he said. Each side had to be prepared to “make concessions here and there” and to think creatively.

Asked why the Israelis had not accepted the Saudi peace initiative of 2002, Katz said it was because the Jewish state was not willing to accept five million Palestinian refugees.

That initiative, re-endorsed at Arab League summits in 2007 and 2017, calls for normalizing relations between the Arab world and Israel in exchange for a full withdrawal by Israel from the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee problem, based on UN Resolution 194.

Asked about the peace initiative which the White House says it is preparing, Katz said the US was not sharing details with Jerusalem.

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Katz also spelled out his vision for a massive railway network that, if it succeeded in bringing Israel, Jordan and the Gulf together by trade, would counter Iranian threats to close off the strategic Strait of Hormuz.

A view of the El Roy train station in the north of Israel, once part of the Jezreel Valley railway system. This connected coastal Haifa with the rest of the Hejaz network which operated until the middle of the 20th century. Photographed on March 24, 2009. (Matanya Tausig/Flash90)

It would be a modern version of the Ottoman-era Hejaz railway, he said, which ran from Damascus in Syria to Medina in Saudi Arabia, with a branch line to Haifa. The outbreak of World War l prevented extension of the line to Mecca, site of the annual Muslim pilgrimage, or Hajj.

Katz explained to the news site that an existing rail line from coastal Haifa to the city of Beit She’an in the Jordan Valley would be extended to the Sheikh Hussein border crossing with Jordan in Israel’s north. Jordan would then continue the line southwards towards Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

Katz said that by connecting into the new Haifa port being built by a Chinese company, the Gulf countries could avoid the Straits of Hormuz and gain a safer, shorter passage to and from the US.

The Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf is seen as one of the most important waterways in the world, with some 20% of the world’s oil endangered by Iranian threats to close off the choke point. The railway would give the Gulf direct access to the Mediterranean.

He said that Netanyahu was totally up to date on the initiative and that he had met seven times with advisers of US President Donald Trump on the subject. Japan, China, Turkey and the Europeans were all in the loop as well.

“We have conducted checks and looked into this. In a reality where there’s agreement and it works, the extent of trade going through this channel could reach $250 billion dollars a year.”

Katz said an initiative of this type could restore faith in the chances of peace among a skeptical Israeli public.

“Despite great pessimism, I actually see opportunity,” he said.

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