The security concerns raised in recent days by former intelligence chiefs over the possibility that a Chinese company may build the new Beersheva-Eilat railway is only one of the question-marks over the massive infrastructure project.
While the neighbouring African continent is rapidly becoming criss-crossed with Chinese-built roads and railways, along with hundreds of hotels, airports and shopping centres, the giant construction enterprise has yet to arrive in Israel.
The main Chinese involvement in Israel’s economy so far has been the supply of workers, mainly for the construction sector, but the projects have been carried out by Israeli companies.
Awarding an entire major project to the Chinese is a result of the ambitious government plan to build a fast railway line to Eilat, a project that is largely beyond the technical capabilities of Israeli companies, especially within the projected budget frame of £6bn.
Concerns over Chinese espionage penetrating Israeli computer systems through the rail project are warranted. The Chinese military cyber-warfare department has made significant inroads major financial organisations and secret defence projects in the US and Europe. So far, similar penetration of Israeli networks has not yet been detected and Israel’s gatekeepers would want to keep it that way.
But there are other worries about Chinese involvement. Such projects are carried out entirely by Chinese teams, often convicted prisoners brought out en masse who work outside the supervision of local managers. As a result, there is little room for quality control and supervision of labour conditions.
A major project would also create a significant trade imbalance between the two countries.
But the Chinese are not the only reason the government should hesitate. Eilat, with 60,000 residents and around two million tourists a year, does not need this multi-billion railtrack. Especially not while a brand new airport is being built outside the town.
The original plan was to build a single track for goods trains only, carrying mainly cars unloaded at Eilat and to compete with Egypt’s Suez Canal. That would have made economic sense (but could have caused major problems with Egypt). The twin track, fully electric line, if it ever built, may prove a white elephant carrying Chinese spies.