Iran, the Hejaz railway and the 'ultimate deal'

Israel's proposal to the Arab world: an anti-Iran axis, trade along a revived Hejaz railway and a Gaza mini-state.

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    Israel makes plans to resurrect a once busy train line linking the heartland of the Arabian peninsula to the port of Haifa on the Mediterranean. [Reuters/Ronen Zvulun]
    Israel makes plans to resurrect a once busy train line linking the heartland of the Arabian peninsula to the port of Haifa on the Mediterranean. [Reuters/Ronen Zvulun]

    An ambitious Israeli cabinet minister, a thrusting Saudi crown prince, a son-in-law of a US president and a long-abandoned railway. Could this be the start of an anti-Iran axis that in a further twist of an extraordinary tale pulls a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians like a rabbit out of a hat?

    The cabinet minister is Yisrael Katz who holds both the portfolios of intelligence affairs and transport in the current Israeli government. He is considered to be a leading candidate to take Benjamin Netanyahu's job should swirling corruption charges finally bring down Israel's second-longest-serving prime minister.

    The crown prince is, of course, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) who now exercises a panoply of powers unseen since the days of his grandfather Ibn Saud, the founder of the modern-day Saudi kingdom. MBS is as ruthless as he is ambitious, having despatched his rivals to the throne in short order.

    The son-in-law is Jared Kushner, a New York real estate developer who was anointed a senior adviser to the president and charged with securing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

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    The railway is the 1,300km track the Ottomans built in 1908 between Damascus and Medina, Islam's second-holiest site. A branch line connected the Mediterranean port of Haifa to the main line via the Jezreel Valley and modern-day Jordan. The railway closed in 1920 as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

    Now Minister Katz is pushing a freight railway revival as a key element in an anti-Iran axis, one that would use trade to pull Saudi Arabia and other Arab states into a close alliance with Israel. In a recent interview with the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, he stated that "Iran is the big enemy," adding "It's very clear we [Israel and Saudi Arabia] are practically on the same side … All Sunni countries are against Iran. We wish to have a peace agreement in parallel with advancing regional economic development initiatives."

    The minister, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party has already overseen the opening of 60 kilometres of track from Haifa, through the Jezreel Valley in northeast Israel to the border of Jordan. And though he is a fervent opponent of the two-state solution, he has offered Palestinians living in the West Bank an intriguing carrot: a spur line that would connect the Palestinian city of Jenin to the main railway. "If the Palestinians connect to a railway system, the entire area will get a significant economic boost," he told Haaretz newspaper.

    Meanwhile, he has been busy wooing MBS. On December 14, he openly courted MBS with an offer to hit "Iranian missile plants" in Lebanon. The Saudis, though they won't say so openly, have been badly rattled by two missile attacks on Riyadh. They accuse Iran of supplying the long-range missiles, fired by Houthi rebels inside Yemen, through their regional proxy Hezbollah. It is a charge the Iranians deny.

    Katz called the 32-year-old Saudi Crown Prince a leader of the Arab world and proposed that Saudi Arabia sponsor a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The minister added that Israel would be happy to participate in such negotiations. And he invited MBS to visit Israel to meet senior Israeli government officials and Katz himself. Such a meeting presumably would take place in Jerusalem where the Israeli parliament, the Knesset and government ministries are located.

    That may be a step too far, at least at this stage. Still the official Saudi response to US President Donald Trump's statement declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel has been surprisingly muted given that the kingdom's leadership over several decades has pushed, often only tepidly, for a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.

    Just how muted can be measured by a remarkable meeting MBS had in early December with Robert Satloff who runs the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The WINEP is a pro-Israeli think-tank linked to AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), itself a powerful organisation that lobbies strenuously on Israel's behalf in Washington.

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    Satloff had an 80-minute session with MBS in Riyadh, something that would have been unthinkable even a few months ago. The fact that the meeting happened just after Trump's declaration on Jerusalem, that it lasted over an hour, and that MBS only mentioned Jerusalem after prompting from Satloff, makes it even more remarkable.

    A week later Satloff published an article on WINEP's website titled "Mohammed bin Salman Doesn't Want to Talk About Jerusalem". He wrote the following:

    "If we hadn't asked him directly about Trump's announcement, it may never have come up […] He limited himself to a single word of disappointment about the President's decision - literally - and then quickly turned to where Riyadh and Washington could work together to limit the fallout and restore hope to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process."

    That peace process increasingly looks to be a deal cooked up by MBS and Jared Kushner. It is the so-called sanctuary plan which would see a new Palestinian state created by combining Gaza with North Sinai. West Bank Palestinian towns and cities now being increasingly encircled by Israeli settlements would fall under the jurisdiction of Jordan. For their part, the Saudis would commit hundreds of millions of dollars to support the project.

    The plan anticipates an exodus of Palestinians to Sinai from the West Bank, from a terribly overcrowded Gaza and from Israel thus defusing the demographic time bomb the Israelis would face if they declared a one-state solution with equal rights for all, a democracy where Palestinians would inevitably become the majority.

    Declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel is the first step in the grand plan to close, in Trump's words, "the ultimate deal". Katz with his transport minister's cap on has already offered to build an artificial island off the coast of Gaza that would serve as an airport and transport hub for the new state.

    That the sanctuary plan flies in the face of reality on the ground seems to have escaped Katz, MBS and Kushner. The Palestinians are not likely to be gang-pressed into abandoning their decades-long struggle for their homeland. Nor are Egyptians living in North Sinai going to take well being forcibly relocated west of Suez. And will President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, already stung by criticism for giving up two islands to the Saudis, offer up a big chunk of the Sinai Peninsula? Finally, where will the increasingly cash-strapped Saudis find the money to fund this madcap enterprise?

    For now, though, the real danger remains the heightened anxiety over the growing clout of Iran in the region, one that could lead the Israelis, the Saudis and the Americans into a full-scale proxy war. And Katz has already signalled that he is up for it. Speaking recently of the 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli war in Lebanon, he said, "What happened in 2006 will be a picnic compared to what we can do […] I am telling you that we will return Lebanon to the Stone Age."

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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