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Israel’s north-south rail project will link to Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu says

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is optimistic about the possibility of connecting Israel to the Saudi and wider Gulf rail network.
Benjamin Netanyahu train

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel’s planned north-south rail line will link the country to Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab Peninsula.

At a special cabinet meeting dedicated to a rail project linking the northern town of Kiryat Shmona to the southern Red Sea resort city of Eilat, Netanyahu said the infrastructure “will be able in the future to link Israel to Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Peninsula, we’re working on that too.”

 “My vision is for every Israeli citizen to be able to travel to or from the center from anywhere in the country in less than two hours. In most cases under an hour, and even less than that,” Netanyahu added, announcing his government will invest 100 billion shekels ($27 billion) in the plan.

Netanyahu did not share more details on the possible extension of the Israel north-south railway toward Saudi Arabia, and it is unclear whether any moves in that direction could take place before diplomatic normalization between the two countries is agreed. A senior Israeli diplomatic source expressed doubts to Al-Monitor on whether such a project could be advanced before a normalization deal is reached.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry confirmed to Al-Monitor on July 18 that the government is working to establish a continuous trade land bridge connecting Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, from the Persian Gulf to Israel's seaports. The project is understood to start in the Emirates, pass through Saudi Arabia and end in the Israeli city of Eilat. 

According to the diplomatic source, the land bridge project means, for example, that trucks departing from Israel’s Haifa port could easily obtain permits to travel to the Emirates, passing first via Jordan and then via Saudi Arabia. No new roads will be constructed. Rather, an authorization process will be put in place for commercial trucks in the region. For Israel, the preferred route into Jordan would be via the northern Jordan River crossing point.

According to the source, the two projects are not necessarily linked. Talks about the land bridge project are advancing, while the connecting rail could take considerably longer.

Netanyahu's statement about linking Israel to Saudi Arabia by rail came amid reports that the two countries are advancing political normalization talks. The New York Times reported Thursday that US President Joe Biden was considering pursuing a US-Saudi security pact that would involve Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel. Addressing the issue on Friday, Biden said a deal with the Saudis may be on the way after talks conducted by national security adviser Jake Sullivan in Jeddah last week. Sullivan’s visit to Saudi Arabia is the second in three months. 

The New York Times reported on Sunday, citing an unnamed Israeli official, that normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel would require “significant concessions” to the Palestinians that are unlikely to be approved by Netanyahu’s current hard-line coalition. The report read that Riyadh’s position on normalization has apparently changed, with Saudi King Salman now demanding significant moves by the Israeli government in favor of the Palestinians in any potential normalization deal. Riyadh, it said, would require concrete action rather than a pledge by Netanyahu not to annex West Bank territories.

The report suggested that any push by Netanyahu to bring about such concessions would bring down his hard-line government. As such, the only way for him to advance normalization with Saudi Arabia would be to form a unity government with the main opposition parties. Opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz have pledged never to sit in another Netanyahu-led government, but according to the report, “Questions have come up in discussions with Americans about whether the leaders might relent if it meant establishing diplomatic relations with the Saudis.”

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