As Arab nations move grudgingly toward accepting the reality of Israel, an Israeli Cabinet minister is proposing that they all share a railway link that could cut overland travel distances between the Mediterranean and key Arab destinations by a half or two-thirds.
The Regional Landbridge & Hub Initiative has been developed by Israel Katz, Israel’s minister of transportation and intelligence and a potential rival to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for leadership of the right-wing Likud Party.
The idea is in play as President Trump prepares to visit Saudi Arabia and Israel later this month. Katz has pitched his plan twice to Jason D. Greenblatt, who was chief legal officer for the Trump Organization and is now Trump’s special representative for international negotiations. Katz’s team has also briefed other White House aides and key members of Congress.
The plan would take a railway line that dates to Ottoman and British times, known back then as the Hejaz Railway and its Haifa Branch. A recently reconstructed part of this line links Haifa to the Beit Shean at the border along the Jordan River. The idea is to continue that line to Irbid in northern Jordan and then connect it with a Jordanian rail hub that would stretch north to Damascus, east to Baghdad, southeast to Riyadh and the Gulf, and south to Jeddah and the Red Sea.
This isn’t a peace plan; Katz is a hard-liner who opposes the creation of a Palestinian state. But it might offer some economic benefits for the Palestinians, under Katz’s proposal for a spur line that would run south to Jenin in the West Bank.
The “land bridge” would mean a striking reduction in travel distances: The overland rail connection between Haifa and Dammam in Saudi Arabia would be 1,763 kilometers, compared with 6,169 kilometers by sea; a trip to Irbid would be 120 kilometers, vs. 1,446 by sea, via Aqaba. The Baghdad link would be 2,145 kilometers vs. 7,782 by sea, via Basra.
“We want the U.S. to back this initiative,” Katz told me in an interview this week as he displayed his maps of the proposed rail network for the first time to a U.S. journalist. “It can be a game-changer,” he argued, noting that the Arabs could receive cargo without potential threats to commerce from Iran and its proxies at the Strait of Hormuz at the eastern edge of the Gulf and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait at the mouth of the Red Sea.
Katz showed me another offbeat idea, a proposal to create an artificial island off Gaza to deal with overcrowding and poverty there. As he described the project, it sounded a bit like the artificial islands that now dot the coast off Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Those Gulf properties are expensive vacation resorts, a lifetime away from the brutal squalor of Gaza. But who knows? Creating new Mediterranean beachfront property is an intriguing idea, no matter where it’s located.
Until the issue of Palestinian statehood is resolved, it’s likely that good ideas such as a revived Haifa-Hejaz railway will wither. The best economic plans don’t work without a solid political foundation. Absent a peace deal, the railway might be a terrorist target, rather than a commercial lifeline.
But still, it’s an intriguing idea — one built on the irreducible fact of geography — and it deserves a closer look.