Think of Energy Minister Israel Katz, and many roles may come to mind: quintessential Likud functionary, long-serving minister, challenger for Likud leadership in the post-Netanyahu era.Visionary, however, is not necessarily one of them.Yet with US President Joe Biden’s announcement over the weekend at the G20 meeting of an India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC), with India to be linked to the Middle East and Europe through rail, shipping lines, pipes, and cables, Katz has proven to be, well, prophetic.
Israel Katz is an unexpected visionary: Connecting Europe, Middle East, and India with trains
Biden said that as part of this corridor, which is meant to be a counterbalance to China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative designed to connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks, “we’re going to invest in ships and rail that extends from India all the way to Europe, connected by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel; bridging ports across two continents.”It’s a “real big deal,” Biden said of the project that is to connect India to the Arabian Gulf, and the Arabian Gulf to Europe – partly through Israel.
But if Katz served here in the role of a prophet, he is not necessarily a humble one not looking for credit.After Biden’s announcement, he released a statement saying that “when I was the transportation minister I started to move forward a regional vision that would link all of the Middle East through railways. I then continued to advance the project through various positions [including as foreign minister] in Netanyahu governments.”Quoting from Psalms he said, “those who sow in tears, shall reap in joy.”Overblown a bit? Perhaps. But there is no denying that this is an idea that Katz promoted amid much skepticism for years. In 2012, when he was in his third year of a 10-year tenure as transportation minister, the cabinet approved the construction of a Red-Med train link between Eilat and Tel Aviv designed not only to reduce travel time between the cities dramatically, but also to create an Asian-European cargo link as an alternative to the Suez Canal. Ironically, considering the fierce competition between the US and China, Katz suggested at the time that the Chinese would be the preferred partner for building the project.“Experience shows that the professional ability of Chinese companies in building railway tracks and transportation networks is among the best in the world,” he said. Predictably, little progress followed from that cabinet decision.Then, in April 2017, Katz convened a press conference in his office, unveiling what seemed to be a pie-in-the-sky project called “Tracks to Peace.”The ambitious plan aimed to give Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and potentially Iraq access to the Mediterranean through Israel’s ports in Haifa and Ashdod.Under the project, the Haifa to Beit She’an train link would be extended eastward to the border crossing with Jordan and southward to the Jenin area, where the Palestinians could connect to it.Rail lines would be laid in Irbid, Jordan, and from there, they would link with existing and planned lines extending north-south through Jordan, into Saudi Arabia, and further east to the Persian Gulf.Katz presented this plan to the Americans, aiming to turn Israel into a land bridge connecting Africa, Asia, and Europe. Historically, as Netanyahu noted at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, where he lauded Biden’s new proposal, Israel played that role, though not always to its advantage.“The Land of Israel has always been a transit point for empires that trampled us in campaigns of conquest in every direction. Now the State of Israel has become a different kind of transit country. It has become a main junction in the global economy, a bridge of peace that is changing us.”The concept of Israel as a critical transit hub is indeed revolutionary, especially considering, as Ehud Eiram pointed out in a March 2022 article in the Jerusalem Strategic Tribune, that “as late as 2003, Israel’s main international airport did not have any infrastructure for transit passengers.” More than anything, this reflected the country’s mindset until that point: an isolated outpost in a hostile region.Katz argued that there was historical, security, and economic logic to this plan. From a security perspective, it would provide a solution to Iranian threats to close off the strategic Strait of Hormuz or Bab el-Mandeb at the mouth of the Red Sea, because oil and goods that are currently carried by ship via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal could be delivered overland through Israel. Historically, there were precedents to the plan: The Ottomans laid tracks in the early 20th century for the Hijaz train that ran from Damascus to Medina, with a branch to Haifa and Acre.Economically, the plan would benefit Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority since Katz’s idea was to link the railway to Jenin, giving the Palestinians easy access to markets in the east through Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and to Europe via Israel’s ports.Katz continued to promote the plans as foreign minister, even traveling to an international transportation conference in Oman to do so.However, tangible progress was limited. Biden’s initiative, however, will now give it a monumental boost.Nevertheless, the US initiative is influenced not only by a desire to integrate the Middle East, but also by the rivalry between the US, China, and Russia. The Chinese are actively working on their Belt and Road Initiative, and even the Russians are pursuing greater global interconnectivity by opening a cargo train line to Riyadh last month via Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran.To a large degree, Biden’s plan is old wine in new bottles. But now that the bottles are coming from the US, with formal buy-in from India, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the EU, France, Germany, and Italy, the chance of those bottles actually moving off the shelves has increased tremendously.