In recent weeks, the world public has been confronted with the brutal war between Israel and Hamas. The international community, despite its great power and massive protests against the war in Gaza, has turned into a mere bystander allowing the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to slowly but surely implement the scorched earth policy and turn the Gaza Strip into rubble and ashes.
Although the war began with the incursion of Hamas militants into southern Israel, who committed massacres there, it soon became apparent that the Palestinian casualties would be much higher, as expected. Certain analysts posit theories that the Mossad and other Israeli services deliberately delayed and allowed the Hamas incursion to give Israel a free hand to destroy Hamas and take over the Gaza Strip. Although there is no concrete evidence for such claims, it is clear that Israel is unequivocally using the intervention in Gaza for its (greater) national plans.
A new opportunity for an old idea
Recently, thanks to the war, the idea of the Ben Gurion Canal project has been revived in the media. The canal would connect the Gulf of Aqaba (Eilat) in the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea and would pass through Israel and end in or near the Gaza Strip (Ashkelon). It is an Israeli alternative to the Suez Canal that became actual in the 1960s after Nasser’s nationalization of Suez.
The first ideas about connecting the Red and Mediterranean seas appeared in the middle of the 19th century by the British who wanted to connect the three seas: Red, Dead and Mediterranean. Since the Dead Sea is 430.5 meters below sea level, such an idea was not feasible, but it can be carried out in another direction. Encouraged by Nasser’s nationalization of Suez, the Americans considered the option of the Israeli canal, which was their staunch ally in the Middle East.
In July 1963, H. D. Maccabee of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, under contract to the US Department of Energy, wrote a memorandum exploring the possibility of using 520 underground nuclear explosions to help dig about 250 kilometers of canals through the Negev desert. The document was classified as secret until 1993. “Such a canal would be a strategically valuable alternative to the current Suez Canal and would probably greatly contribute to the economic development of the surrounding area,” the declassified document states.
The idea of the Ben Gurion Canal appeared again at the moment when the so-called Abrahamic Accords between Israel and UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. On October 20, 2020, the unthinkable happened – the Israeli state-owned company Europe Asia Pipeline Company (EAPC) and the Emirati company MED-RED Land Bridge signed an agreement on the use of the Eilat-Ashkelon oil pipeline to transport oil from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.
On April 2, 2021, Israel announced that work on the Ben Gurion Canal was expected to begin by June 2021. However, this did not happen. Many analysts interpret the current Israeli re-occupation of the Gaza Strip as something that many Israeli politicians have been waiting for in order to revive an old project. The project was named after the first prime minister of Israel, the “founding father of the State of Israel”, David Ben-Gurion.
When the planned route is considered in more detail, it can be seen that the canal starts at the southern edge of the Gulf of Aqaba, from the port city of Eilat near the Israeli-Jordanian border and continues through the Arabah Valley for about 100 km between the Negev Mountains and the Jordanian highlands. It then turns west before the Dead Sea, continues through a valley in the Negev mountain range, and then turns north again to bypass the Gaza Strip and join the Mediterranean Sea in the Ashkelon region.
The meaning of the Suez Canal
The importance of the Suez Canal for the world economy is priceless. The Suez Canal was opened in 1867 and makes it possible to shorten the shipping route between Europe, Africa and Asia. Instead of sailing around the southern coast of Africa (Cape of Good Hope), ships can use the Suez Canal as a faster and more economical route. The canal is crucial for transporting oil and gas from the Middle East region to European and Far Eastern markets.
About 25,000 ships pass through Suez annually and transport 12-13% of world trade. Maritime transport through Suez plays a key role in the world economy – it supports international supply chains and stimulates economic growth. The Suez Canal is Egypt’s most valuable economic project, which only in the fiscal year 2022-23. achieved record revenues – an incredible 9.4 billion dollars, about 2% of Egypt’s GDP.
The Ben-Gurion Canal would be more efficient than the Suez Canal because, in addition to being able to accommodate a larger number of ships, it would enable the simultaneous two-way navigation of large ships through the design of two canal arms. Unlike the Suez Canal, which is located along sandy shores, the Israeli canal would have rocky walls that require almost no maintenance. Israel plans to build small towns, hotels, restaurants and cafes along the canal.
Each proposed branch of the canal would have a depth of 50 meters and a width of about 200 meters. It would be 10 meters deeper than Suez. Ships with a length of 300 meters and a width of 110 meters could pass through the canal, which is the size of the world’s largest ships.
If realized, the Ben Gurion Canal will be almost one third longer than the 193.3 km long Suez Canal – 292.9 km. The construction of the canal would take 5 years and involve 300,000 engineers and technicians from all over the world. The estimated cost of construction is between 16 and 55 billion dollars. Israel should earn 6 billion dollars annually. Whoever controls the canal, and apparently it can only be Israel and its allies (primarily the USA and Great Britain), will have a huge influence on the international supply chains of oil, gas, grains, but also on world trade in general.
The meaning of the Gaza Strip for the canal
Although it was not the original idea, according to the wishes of some Israeli politicians, the last port of the canal could be in Gaza. If Gaza were to be razed to the ground and the Palestinians displaced, a scenario that is happening this fall, it would help planners cut costs and shorten the route of the canal by diverting it into the Gaza Strip.
The project was never realized because the Israelis and the Americans knew that no Arab nation would agree to such a seizure of Palestinian land, which in the Gaza Strip was among the most populated in the world. Also, even if the canal would not end in the Gaza Strip itself, it is hard to believe that the Israelis would build it near an enemy Palestinian territory such as Ashkelon. The canal’s distance of only a few tens of kilometers from the Gaza Strip would make it very vulnerable and subject to Palestinian attacks by rockets, howitzers, drones and other devices. That is why the basic prerequisite for the construction of the canal is the Israeli military control of the Gaza area.
Israeli motives for creating the Ben-Gurion Canal
Israel has strong motivations to dig its own canal between the Red and Mediterranean seas because it has been repeatedly denied the use of the Suez Canal by Egypt. Since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the defeat of the Arab states in the First Israeli-Arab War of 1948-1949 until the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Straits of Tiran and the Suez Canal remained closed to Israeli shipping. The Suez Canal was closed in 1956-1957 due to the Second Israeli-Arab War and the nationalization of the canal, which was successfully carried out by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Although the Suez Canal opened in 1957, Egypt continued to block Israeli ships because it did not recognize the State of Israel. During the ten years from 1957 to 1967, only one Israeli-flagged ship and four foreign-flagged ships arrived at the port of Eilat each month. Between 1967-1975 due to the Second, Third and Fourth Israeli-Arab wars as well as the consequent Arab oil embargo, Suez was closed again. Then Israel’s ability to trade with Africa and Asia (especially importing oil from the Persian Gulf) was severely hampered.
However, since the end of the 1960s, the Israelis replaced Arab oil with Venezuelan oil, which was cheaper and arrived via the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Palestinian political expert Dr. Sami al-Aryan stated that the Ben Gurion project is as old as the history of Israeli occupation. He emphasized the military, economic, energy and strategic importance of the canal. “The Ben Gurion line will also shorten the route through Africa by three weeks. This will have a strong impact on global routes and will inevitably play an escalating role in regional tensions and fueling war”.
According to al-Aryan, the development has direct implications for the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, requiring cooperation between Egypt and Turkey.
The economic motives of the West for creating an alternative to Suez
Besides Israel, the Western powers, the USA and the European Union, have motives to create alternatives to Suez. First, the channel is narrow and shallow and can become blocked very easily. There are frequent traffic jams.
In addition to the Egyptian blockade of the canal for political reasons during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, there was a one-week natural blockade two years ago. In March 2021, the Suez Canal was blocked for six days due to the container ship Ever Given, which got stuck in the middle of the waterway due to strong gusts of wind and thus blocked traffic. The blockade of one of the world’s busiest trade routes has significantly slowed trade between Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
At least 369 ships were waiting in line to pass through the canal with goods worth $9.6 billion. Ports, shippers, freight forwarders, factories, supermarkets, governments and other stakeholders have suffered huge losses. Ultimately, end consumers also had to wait for the desired products to appear on store shelves. The kind that no one wants to experience again.
Political motives of the West for building a competitive channel
But more than the canal’s technical problems, the reasons why the West would like to have an alternative to the Suez Canal are political. The West does not want to depend on a channel controlled by Egypt, a close ally of the Russian Federation, which the West considers a major security threat. The Arab Spring in Egypt experienced an inglorious collapse and the army and the authoritarian regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power. It is the complete opposite of the liberal democracy desired by Washington. In 2022, Egypt’s exports to Russia increased to $595.1 million, up 21.6% from 2021.
At the same time, Egypt’s imports from Russia increased to $4.1 billion in 2022, an increase of 15.5%. Russia wants good relations with Egypt and the Palestinians because of the Russian military presence in the Syrian ports of Latakia and Tartus. Earlier this year, it became known that Egypt will become a full member of BRICS from January 1st 2024. The West does not want Egypt directly, nor Russia and China indirectly, to have control over world trade.
Besides being a close ally of Russia, Cairo is also an important partner of China. The Americans and their partners want to block the Chinese New Silk Road megaproject, in which Egypt has an important role. In 2014, Beijing and Cairo signed the “Strategic Partnership Agreement”, agreeing to cooperate in the fields of defense, technology, economy, the fight against terrorism and cybercrime.
During Xi Jinping’s visit to Egypt in 2016, another 21 agreements were signed, including a contract for 15 billion dollars of Chinese investment in various projects. Infrastructure projects in Egyptian cities have attracted the special attention of Chinese investors. According to China’s ambassador to Cairo, Liao Liqiang, the New Silk Road is closely linked to Egypt’s Vision 2030 – the ambitious development plan launched by President el-Sisi. From 2017 to 2022, Chinese investment in Egypt increased by 317%. During the same period, US investment in Egypt decreased by 31%. Trade between the two countries is about 20 billion dollars.
All this, of course, is a thorn in the side of American policymakers who are looking for alternative ways to isolate Egypt. If they cannot already change the government in Egypt, they can isolate it through other trade routes such as the Ben-Gurion Canal. Turkish Middle East expert Ismail Numan Telci stated that China’s approach to the region is influenced by economic interests. “Beijing will not want to destabilize the region. China attaches great importance to stability in the region in general due to its energy dependence on the Middle East”. Numan Telci adds that the canal through Israel would have a direct negative impact on Iraq’s upcoming megaproject, the Great Development Road, which intends to transport energy on the Basra-Europe route through Turkey.
The canal – a Zionist dream that could become reality
If realized, the Ben Gurion Canal would bring about a tectonic change as it would overshadow the Suez Canal. The project would launch Israel into the center of world shipping and world trade. Egypt would lose its monopoly on the shortest route between Africa, Asia and Europe. The emergence of an alternative Israeli channel would have a devastating impact on the Egyptian economy.
President el-Sisi may regret putting his trust in Israel and Western governments above the well-being of the two million Palestinians in Gaza. Egypt, apart from formally condemning the mass crimes committed by Israeli forces against the civilian Palestinian population, has done little to prevent Israeli wrongdoing, which some call genocide. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly expressed support for the idea of the canal along with the idea of building a high-speed railway from Eilat to Beersheba.
Realizing, or at least starting, this project could redeem Netanyahu from his many mistakes during his long reign, including the intelligence and military failures that facilitated the October 7 attack by Hamas. As much as the ideas of the channel sound like a utopian Zionist dream to some, Israel was also a Zionist dream that turned into reality over several decades. The fact that the idea of the canal is being mentioned again means that it could be implemented in the field after some time.
The danger of a great war
The fundamental factor that prevents the project from coming to life in practice is the presence of Palestinians in Gaza. The Palestinians should be expelled from that area or put under strict control which is happening these days. Apart from the Palestinians, the obstacle to the canal is the Arab and, more broadly, the Muslim world. There is no doubt that an attempt to build a canal from the Red Sea through Israel to the Ashkelon and Gaza areas could start a major war in the Middle East because it is hard to believe that the Muslim states would do nothing. If no one else, Iran would surely react.
Ultimately, the obstacle to the canal is Russia, China and their partners. The Chinese and Russians would not stand idly by and watch irreparable damage be done to BRICS and the New Silk Road. If the Israeli canal came to life and Suez fell into the background, it would cut off Moscow and Beijing from the Mediterranean Sea. It is precisely for these reasons that the construction of the Israeli canal could trigger World War III just as the declaration of the State of Israel triggered numerous Arab-Israeli wars that have lasted for 75 years.
A positive scenario
However, the Ben-Gurion Canal as a traffic route does not necessarily have to be a bad solution. The canal could be a good solution in a positive scenario in which the countries of Israel and Palestine have previously agreed on the two-state model or on the union of two independent states or on some third solution. Then the canal that would pass through the Israeli and Palestinian territories could be an element of economic connection of the Jewish and Palestinian people who would profit from its use. However, looking at the history of the last 75 years and the current terrible news from the Holy Land, such a scenario is closer to science fiction than realpolitik.