by Leo Rennert
Israel and China have signed an agreement to build a railway connecting Israel's southernmost port of Eilat with its Mediterranean ports at Ashdod and Haifa.
The joint multi-billion dollar project will give commercial shipping a ready detour around the Suez canal for vessels heading from the Med to major sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and to ports of call in eastern Africa and southern Asia. And vice versa.
However, there's more to the joint venture than mutual commercial interests, important as they are - China, an emerging world power, wants to expand global trade routes; Israel, with its booming high-tech sector, has similar objectives.
For Israel, the strategic value of this railway project may be even more important than its commercial benefits. In one stroke, it gives Israel a direct link for cargos headed to Eilat from the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea and thence to the Gulf of Aqaba and then, via the new railway, on to Europe, northern Africa and beyond via Ashdod and Haifa. The Suez canal is taken out of the picture should Egypt -- now ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood -- entertain notions of blockading Israeli shipping.
Which, strategically speaking, is not a threat to be taken lightly. The 1967 war between Israel and Egypt was triggered in part by President Nasser's blockade against Israeli shipping via the Straits of Tiran -- a vital seaway between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red. Sea. Later, the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries was drafted so as to stipulate that the Straits of Tiran are international waters open to one and all.
Israel's minister of transport Yisrael Katz headed a 12-member delegation that traveled to Beijing for the signing ceremony. Part of the 20 billion shekel tab would be assumed by the China Development Industrial Bank -- with Israel heading the operational side. Chinese companies expect to win most of the construction projects.
Prime Minister Netanyahu declared the planned railway a national priority project. The 180-kilometer line is expected to cut travel time between Tel Aviv and Eilat to two hours -- a new catalyst for development of the Negev, which along with the Galilee is expected to become an increasing focus for economic and population growth for Israel in coming years.
But the strategic element stands out, as Israel puts more weight on security in a turbulent region -- made even more turbulent and uncertain by ominous results stemming from the "Arab spring."
As Dr. Aaron Lerner, director of Independent Media Review Analysis, puts it: "What country in the region would have the chutzpa to interfere with the operation of a transportation system with a Chinese government connection?
In Beijing, a special dinner given by the Chinese government for the signing ceremony, the food was kosher -- in deference to Shaul Bitterman, who represents Chinese companies in Israel. Bitterman is an Orthodox Jew. A nice symbolic touch to the growing Chinese-Israeli partnership
Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers.
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