netanyahu - Emil Salman - January 10 2011
A cabinet meeting in 2011. Photo by Emil Salman
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The cabinet yesterday began examining a plan for building railway links between the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts, which would create a new route for Europe-Asia trade that could compete with the Suez Canal. Establishing passenger train service through the desert, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted, would also mean the southern Red Sea resort of Eilat would be just two hours away from Tel Aviv, 350 kilometers to the northwest.

The cabinet is expected to vote on the plan at next week's meeting.

"There will be a line for carrying goods from Asia to Europe," Netanyahu told the weekly cabinet meeting yesterday morning. "It has created very great interest among the emerging powers - China and India, and others," he added.

A network of new railway lines and roads would connect the new Eilat route to northern Israel, and this would create "a junction between continents," the prime minister said.

"[The plan] is therefore of strategic importance, both nationally and internationally," he added, explaining that there would be at least one more session of discussion of the subject.

Of the proposals prepared by the Ministry of Transportation for the new rail line, the preferred option was for the work to be done by Chinese state-owned contracting companies, the ministry's website says.

"The professional capability of the Chinese companies in the construction of railway systems and transport networks is among the best in the world," the site quoted Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz as saying. It said Katz met his Chinese counterpart in Beijing in September, and the two agreed to prepare a joint proposal for the Eilat route.

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

However, Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich slammed what she called Katz's plan "to put the railway-to-Eilat project into the hands of the Chinese while bypassing proper tender processes and importing thousands of Chinese workers." She said the move showed "a malfunction in the government's judgment. Even Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz - who at every opportunity champions the cause of reducing the state's responsibility for its citizens - recognizes that this time the employment of Israelis, not Chinese, must be seen to. There's no question the Chinese would be deeply grateful to Yisrael Katz, but the government's first duty is toward its own citizens," Yachimovich added.