Eilat rail link to provide 'alternative to Suez Canal'

By Nathan Jeffay, December 15, 2011

For years, the idea has seemed like a pipe dream. Now, China is poised to build a railway connecting Eilat to central Israel.

Israel's Ministry of Transportation is currently drafting a memorandum of understanding for construction, said ministry deputy director-general Charlie Solomon. It hopes to sign the document with China soon.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu considers the train, which will take 2.5 hours to travel from Eilat to Tel Aviv, key to his vision of "changing the face of reality in Eilat and the south of the country". The Ministry of Transportation has said that it will help to "bring the periphery to the centre".

Local leaders in Eilat share the optimism. "It will make Eilat far closer to the centre of the country, and make it easier for tourists from abroad and Israelis to visit Eilat," said Dana Zanti, spokeswoman for the Eilat municipality. It will also help the resort to market itself to foreign tourists as a base for exploring Israel, she said.

Tourism is just one part of the rail plan. It is part of a broader government scheme to develop the stretch of the Negev that leads from central Israel to Eilat. The Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee announced last Thursday that it aims to double the current population of the Negev to 1.2 million by 2025. The government hopes that the train, serving stations along the route to Eilat, will make Negev communities more attractive.

The third, and most ambitious, part of the rail plan involves promoting it as a rival trade route to the Suez Canal, which will avoid the canal's high fees. Israel wants shippers to dock in Eilat, load goods onto the train, and then ship them out one of the country's Mediterranean ports. "Anybody who looks at the map can see that in the medium to long term this will be an efficient way to transport freight," said Mr Solomon.

But some experts have their doubts. Alfred Tovias, director of Hebrew University's Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations, said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict means that Israel is seen internationally as too unstable for use as a trade route. He also believes that the cost and hassle of unloading and reloading ships will make the option unattractive. "Israel is still considered a cul-de-sac and that is not going to change a lot," he said.

Last updated: 1:57pm, December 15 2011