Israel’s government on Sunday gave the green light to building the first rail link between its Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts, offering a new Asia-Europe trade route to compete with the Suez Canal.

“This is a strategic decision,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ministers at the cabinet’s weekly meeting.

“In the coming decade, new (economic) powers will arise,” a statement from his office quoted him as saying. “It is within our power to create an alternative transport route, bypassing the Suez Canal.”

It said that ministers voted unanimously to go ahead with the scheme.

At an initial cabinet meeting on the project last week, Netanyahu said the plan had “created very great interest among the emerging powers, China and India, and others.”

It also envisages a passenger line through the Negev desert which would for the first time would put Israel’s southern Red Sea resort of Eilat a two-hour train ride from Tel Aviv, 350 kilometers (220 miles) away.

Netanyahu’s office said the first stage would be to choose between three alternative financing schemes ̶ a bilateral agreement “between Israel and another government,” a partnership between the Israeli government and local investors, or full government funding.

The transport ministry says its preferred option is a joint project with China.

“The professional capability of the Chinese companies in the construction of railway systems and transport networks is among the best in the world,” Transport Minister Yisrael Katz said on the ministry’s website.

It says Katz met China’s transport minister in Beijing last September and the two agreed to prepare a joint proposal for the Eilat link.

Israeli officials say a so-called “Med-Red” railway could also be used for future exports of gas to India, and possibly China, from Mediterranean fields currently under development.

The two biggest Israeli finds, Tamar and Leviathan, lie respectively about 80 and 130 kilometers (50 and 80 miles) off the northern port city of Haifa.

Tamar is believed to hold at least 8.4 trillion cubic feet of gas (238 billion cubic meters), while Leviathan is believed to have reserves of 16 trillion cubic feet (450 billion cubic meters).

In June, an Israeli company announced the discovery of two new natural gas fields, Sarah and Mira, around 70 kilometers (45 miles) off the city of Hadera further south along the Mediterranean coast.

Israeli cabinet approves construction of high-speed train line between Tel Aviv and Eilat – HAARETZ

New rail line aims to link Israel’s periphery to the center; length of trip between Tel Aviv and Eilat would be reduced to two and a half hours.
By Moti Bassok and Daniel Schmil

Israel’s cabinet on Sunday morning approved construction of a new high-speed train line between Tel Aviv and the southern port city of Eilat.

The electrified rail line will reach top speeds of 186 miles (300 km) per hour, allowing it to complete the trip in two and a half hours. The 220-mile long (350 km) route will include 63 bridges and five tunnels.
train – Daniel Bar-On – October 2 2011

Passengers at the Arlozoroff Train Station in Tel Aviv.
Photo by: Daniel Bar-On

“For 63 years, there has been talk about linking up the periphery to the center, but nothing has been done,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, adding that the new rail line would “change the face of the country.”

Netanyahu emphasized the line’s advantages as an overland route for passenger and cargo traffic. “We have the ability to create an alternative transportation route that bypasses the Suez Canal – this is an insurance policy,” he said.

A team led by the Prime Minister’s Office Director-General Harel Locker is considering various funding options for the project, and is expected to make a recommendation to the government within 90 days.

Transportation Minister Yaakov Katz, who submitted the proposal to the cabinet, said he had reached an agreement with his Chinese counterpart to pursue cooperation between the two countries on transportation projects, including the new train line to Eilat.

Finance Ministry officials, however, objected to Katz’s proposal that the project be carried out by China, saying it would not be possible to advance such a project without issuing a tender.

Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovich also criticized the transportation minister’s intention to entrust the project to China, which would involve importing thousands of foreign workers from China to construct the project.

“The Chinese will doubtless be deeply grateful to Transportation Minister Israel Katz, but the government’s first responsibility is to its citizens,” she said.

Statutory planning of the line has already begun, and is expected to be completed by the end of 2012. Construction is expected to take another four years.

The cabinet also decided on Sunday to move forward with a plan to evacuate Dov Hoz Airport (known in Hebrew as “Sde Dov”), located in northern Tel Aviv.

A team, also led by PMO Director-General Locker, will formulate a detailed plan for transferring the airport’s civilian and military activities to alternative sites. Thousands of apartments are expected to be built on the site following the airport’s closure.