JERUSALEM Israel's transport minister proposed on Wednesday linking its freight railway network with Jordan and Saudi Arabia and said he presented the idea to U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East envoy last month.
Under the proposal, goods could travel by rail from Israel's Mediterranean port of Haifa through Jordan to Saudi Arabia's Gulf port of Dammam via Jordan.
Yisrael Katz, who also serves as Israel's intelligence minister, declined at a news conference to say whether Arab states had agreed to join his initiative.
After Syria's civil war began in 2011, Israel opened its Haifa port as a conduit for goods coming from Turkey and Europe to be trucked to Arab countries further east, but traffic has been limited due to small capacity and political opposition.
A railway connection would formalise links across tense borders. Israel, which has fought three wars with its Arab neighbours, has peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, but not with Saudi Arabia.
Katz, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, told reporters Trump's envoy Jason Greenblatt expressed enthusiasm about the plan during his regional visit.
"I have already started working ... I am in touch with very senior elements in the U.S. administration," said Katz, who has said he intends to eventually succeed Netanyahu as Likud leader.
Katz said he did not believe a rail route would make a serious dent in the high volume of commercial traffic through Egypt's Suez canal linking the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.
Israel has spoken in recent years of the possibility of a "new horizon" with Sunni Arab states in the region, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf.
In part the goal of closer ties would be to act as a bulwark against Iran's spreading influence in the region, but there is also the possibility of increased trade and business, including with countries that may not officially recognise Israel, like Saudi Arabia.
Katz said his plan could also give the Palestinians far greater ability to export goods from the occupied West Bank to the Arab world. Palestinians say Israel's control of that border has limited their trade prospects.
Katz said only a short length of track was needed to link Israel and the northern West Bank near a Jordan River crossing with Jordan.
"If the Palestinians connect to a railway system, the entire area will get a significant economic boost," he said.
Jordanian officials were not immediately available for comment on the proposal.
Katz, who has held the transportation portfolio under Netanyahu since 2009, has proposed building an island off the coast of the Hamas Islamist-run Gaza Strip that would house an airport and sea port to serve the Palestinians.
Israel maintains a naval blockade of the Gaza Strip, citing security concerns, and tightly regulates the overland passage of goods and people through its border with the territory.
Egypt, at odds with Hamas, keeps its frontier with the enclave largely closed.
(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Janet Lawrence)