Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz recently unveiled a Middle East peace plan predicated on two practical public works projects. He claims they can be “game changers” in terms of Israel’s future relationship with the Palestinians and neighbouring Arab countries.
Katz’s proposal, while innovative, suffers from a fatal flaw.
Katz wants to build a seaport on an artificial island off the coast of the Gaza Strip and construct a regional railway line extending from Israel into Jordan, which already is connected by rail to Saudi Arabia.
He envisions that this grand scheme would be financed and implemented by the United States and other major donors.
“Advancing economic initiatives in cooperation with countries in the region, with American tailwind and leadership and assistance from other international and regional actors in planning, financing and execution, is the best way forward now,” explained Katz.
Under his plan, a small island of about six to seven square kilometres would be built from sand dredged from the bottom of the Red Sea. It would house a commercial seaport as well as a desalination and power plant and would be connected to Gaza by a five-kilometre-long bridge. Katz contends it would provide economic and humanitarian relief to Gaza, whose underdevelopment and impoverishment have been exacerbated by the outbreak of three wars between Israel and Hamas since late 2008.
The railway extension Katz has in mind would have important strategic and economic implications. It would give Israel and the Palestinians, particularly those in the West Bank, access to Sunni Arab markets in Jordan and beyond. Theoretically, it would be a win-win situation for all concerned.
Katz presented his scheme to U.S. special envoy Jason Greenblatt during his visit to Israel in March. Greenblatt was receptive to it, Katz claims. President Donald Trump, however, has not taken a public position on it.
Nor has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embraced it. According to reports, Netanyahu is concerned it may enhance Katz’s stature as a contender for his job. Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman, meanwhile, reportedly opposes it for security reasons.
Tellingly enough, Katz did not consult the leadership of the Palestinian Authority before submitting his plan. His failure to do so is easily explainable. Katz, like most members of the ruling Likud Party, opposes a two-state solution. He believes that Israel cannot afford to grant the Palestinians of the West Bank more than autonomy, an outcome that no self-respecting Palestinian leader could possibly accept. Absent Palestinian statehood, Sunni Arab states like Jordan and Saudi Arabia would be reluctant to buy into Katz’s scheme.
In Gaza, the Hamas leadership has spoken of the need for a functioning seaport, but if it’s not tied to a credible peace process and agreement that meets the national aspirations of the Palestinians, it will have no legs to stand on.
Unless the Israeli government is ready and able to acquiesce to a two-state solution, Katz’s idea will be still-born, little more than pie-in-the-sky.
Ultimately, Israel will have to pay a tangible political price for converting the Katz initiative, or something like it, from fantasy to reality, says Shlomo Brom of the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel.
“The benchmark for seriousness is what you’re willing to pay for it, and the coin we’re expected to pay is flexibility in talks with the Palestinians,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency earlier this month. “The current (Israeli) government is clearly not willing to use this coin.”
Unless Israel gets really serious about peace, Katz will have to file his ambitious plan into a drawer, where it will gather dust, like so many other grandiose plans.