by: Kathy DeGagne, BFP Staff Writer
In 1971, Cat Stevens wrote a song called “Peace Train.” He confidently envisioned everyone riding a train bound for world peace. Fifty years later, the peace train seems to have barely left the station. But lately, hope for peace in the Middle East is picking up steam—and it comes on the heels of an initiative presented by Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at a transportation conference in the Sultanate of Oman in early November 2018.
The initiative called “Tracks for Regional Peace” is intended as a way to advance peace and build economic ties in the region. It proposes that peace in the Middle East is possible—literally through a passenger and cargo train—a rail network linking Israel with the Gulf states. Rail tracks from Haifa port on the Mediterranean would connect through Jordan to Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Arab states on the Arabian Peninsula.
The United States has endorsed the proposed plan, with US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt tweeting: “This is a helpful step for our peace efforts [alluding to US President Donald Trump’s plan for Middle East peace called the “Deal of the Century”] and essential to create an atmosphere of stability, security and prosperity between Israelis, Palestinians and their neighbors.”
Recently, relations between Israel and the Arab Gulf states have been thawing and unprecedented connections have been made between Israeli leaders and their Arab counterparts in the Gulf. In the space of a few weeks, visits by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Katz to Oman were preceded by visits by Sports Minister Miri Regev to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Communications Minister Ayoub Kara to Dubai. Regev visited the UAE to oversee the Israeli team in a judo competition, where, for the first time in an Arab nation, Israel’s national anthem was heard and the Israeli flag was raised after an Israeli judoka won the gold.
Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu and Israeli security officials made a historic visit to Oman at the invitation of the sultan in late October. Oman is located on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and abuts Yemen on one side and Saudi Arabia on the other. Oman is known for its role as a mediator between adversaries in the region. Shortly after Netanyahu’s visit, Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said acknowledged that “Israel is one of the countries in the region…maybe it is time that Israel had the same privileges and duties as other countries.”
Though Israel has no formal diplomatic alliances with Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, they are united in their concern over Iran and its increasing influence over countries and groups in the region. This includes Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and involvement in the civil wars in Syria and Yemen. An alliance with Israel seems to make sense in the increasingly complex situation. Support for Palestinian land aspirations now seems to have taken second place to the threat of Iran in Sunni Arab priorities. The Arab states also understand Israel’s edge in technology and security, which makes the Jewish state a coveted ally.
Katz explained that his proposal is based on two central ideas: “Israel as a land bridge and Jordan as a regional transportation hub.” For millennia, Israel has served as a land bridge between nations in the region. With this new rail initiative, Israel will reprise that critical role as a land bridge for trade and diplomatic ties.
The rail link would connect the Mediterranean Sea with the Persian Gulf via Israel and Jordan in the shortest, most efficient route to transport goods and people. The 2,200-kilometers (1,367 mi.) rail network would serve as an alternative to air and sea routes, which can be much longer and costlier. It would also bypass the security threats posed by the Iranian-controlled Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al Mandeb (at the southern end of the Red Sea).
Almost 90% of the region’s oil and natural gas exports are shipped through these maritime gateways. A shutdown of the Straits by Iran would create a serious economic disaster for Saudi Arabia and the UAE as well as shake economies around the globe.
Israel plans to expand rail lines in northern Israel from Haifa to Beit She’an and eastward to the Jordanian border, with a stop in the Palestinian city of Jenin in Samaria (West Bank), promising to improve the economy of the Palestinians, as well as the Gulf states, Jordan, Israel and Iraq. Extensions of rail lines in Saudi Arabia and Jordan are also in the works. Katz predicts that growth in regional trade could reach US $250 billion by 2030.
Once, the dream of linking the Middle East by rail would have been a pipe dream, made even more impossible by regional conflicts and tension. But today, with growing understanding and ties between Israel and neighboring Arab states, the vision to enhance peaceful coexistence within Israel and the region may just become a reality. As Jason Greenblatt tweeted: “Let’s keep the dialogue going.”
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