Thursday, June 20, 2024

Israel plans to build $27bn rail expansion, eyes future link to Saudi Arabia

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated on Sunday Israel will build a 100 billion shekel ($27 billion) rail expansion that will connect its outlying areas to Tel Aviv and, in the future, could provide overland links to Saudi Arabia.

The announcement followed a trip by top US officials to Saudi Arabia last week to advance a possible forging of formal relations between the Muslim powerhouse and Israel.

Opening the weekly Israeli cabinet meeting, Netanyahu appeared to sidestep the constitutional crisis that has roiled the country for seven months, denting its economy and shaking Western allies’ confidence in its democratic health.

Instead, he promoted infrastructure initiatives including the “One Israel Project”, which he described as designed to reduce travel time by train to the country’s business and government centres to two hours or less.

“I would like to add that in the future we will also be able to transport cargo by rail from Eilat to our Mediterranean, and will also be able to link Israel by train to Saudi Arabia and the Arabian peninsula,” he said in televised remarks.

“On this, too, we are working,” he added.

Meanwhile, a top Israeli lawmaker said that any forging of relations with Saudi Arabia did not appear imminent, citing what he described as sticking points in negotiations currently being held between Riyadh and US mediators.

US President Joe Biden stated on Friday that “there’s a rapprochement maybe under way”.

The idea has been under discussion since the Saudis gave their quiet assent to Persian Gulf neighbours United Arab Emirates and Bahrain establishing ties with Israel in 2020. But Riyadh has not followed suit, saying Palestinian demands must first be met.

“I think it’s too early to talk about a deal being in the works,” Yuli Edelstein, head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee and a senior member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, told Israel’s Army Radio on Sunday.

He brushed off the possibility that the impasse between Netanyahu’s hard-right government and the statehood goals of the politically divided Palestinians was the main obstacle.

“How shall I put this delicately? There are clauses that are far more important or problematic than such-and-such declarations in the Palestinian realm,” he continued.

“Most of the Saudi discourse is with the Americans, and not with us,” he added, saying that when it came to Riyadh’s demands of Washington, “there are some things we can live with better, and some things we can live with less well”.

Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, asked by reporters as he entered the weekly cabinet meeting whether there would be progress in the Saudi talks, stressed: “I hope so.”

Saudi Arabia seeks US cooperation in establishing a civilian nuclear programme on its soil. US and Israeli media have also reported Saudi efforts to upgrade US defence imports.

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