The Israelis are promoting a Red Sea-Mediterranean Sea waterway, the Ben Gurion Canal, as a rival to the Suez Canal. As per the Israelis, the distance between Eilat, a southern Israeli port and resort town on the Red Sea near Jordan, and the Mediterranean is not long and is in fact similar to the distance of the Suez connection between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
Although it poses a direct threat to the Egypt’s Suez Canal but Suez Canal is shorter than the Israeli route and the Suez Canal rarely reaches 100 meters in height making it a better option. At the same time, Israel says this route is good for the ships which are unable to transit Suez Canal due to restrictions on the size of the ship.
History of Canal proposals via Israel
In the mid-1800, the British considered the proposal of a canal to the Red Sea via the Dead Sea. In 1855, Rear Admiral William Allen FRS, an English naval officer and an explorer proposed an alternative to the Suez Canal titled “The Dead Sea – A new route to India.” But William Allen did not know that the dead Sea was much below the sea level. His idea was that a canal that would connect the three water bodies, Red Sea, dead Sea and Mediterranean Sea, would be cheaper than the projected Suez Canal.
The US toyed with the idea of digging a canal opposite to the Suez Canal in 1963. It was recommended in a memo submitted by Lawrence Livermore Patriot Laps in the US as a response to the decision taken by the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to nationalize the Suez Canal in 1956. The controversial plan was revealed to the world only in 1994. The controversial US proposal involved 520 nuclear blasts to excavate more than 160 odd miles through Israel’s Negev desert, instead of traditional methods. The contentious proposal also noted that the project will be aggressively opposed by the Arab states. The canal would connect the Mediterranean Sea with the Gulf of Aqaba (Also called Gulf of Eilat) and thus the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.
The Modern Proposal
The idea of Ben Gurion canal has surfaced at a time when the Abraham Accords have radically changed the political landscape of the sensitive region. On 20th October 2020, the unthinkable happened when the Israeli state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company (EAPC) and the UAE-based MED-RED Land Bridge inked an arrangement to use the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline to move oil from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.
On 2 April 2021, Israel announced that work on the Ben Gurion Canal is expected to begin by June 2021. The initial reference to the Ben Gurion Canal was published about two years back in Hebrew language publications. As per the sources, Israel will build the canal from Eilat on the Red Sea to Mediterranean. Unlike the Suez Canal, the Israeli canal can handle ships going in both the directions. This will be achieved by creation of two canals. Unlike the Suez Canal which is along the sandy shores, the Israeli canal will have rocky walls which means that it scarcely requires maintenance. Israel plans to build small cities, hotels, restaurants and nightclubs along the canal. Each proposed canal is about 50 meters in depth and about 200 meters in width. They will be 10 meters deeper than the Suez Canal. A ship with a length of 300 meters and a width of 110 meters, which is the largest size of ships in the world, will be able to pass through the canal. The Suez Canal is 193 km long and the trans-Israel canal would be about 100 km longer.
The canal construction will take about 5 odd years involving about and 300,000 engineers and technicians who will be recruited from around the world. Israel has projected an income of about USD 6 billion a year or more from the canal. This is in addition to the fact that Israel will have the largest artery connecting the Mediterranean with the Red Sea. The cost of making this canal is estimated to be between $16 billion to $55 billion depending upon sources.
Ben Gurion Canal VS Suez Canal
An estimated 12% of world maritime trade passes through the Suez Canal making the route far from indispensable. Egypt can either build a new canal parallel to the Suez Canal or expand the existing one at a third of the cost proposed by Israel. The key reason for the construction of the Ben Gurion Canal is that merchant vessels sailing to and fro Asia and Europe have an alternative to sail around Africa’s southern tip. Africa’s southern tip route is more time consuming and expends more fuel. A shipper will have to choose from faster navigation via the Israeli Canal or the cost saving, but delayed transit due to the wait time, of the Suez Canal. The Ben Gurion Canal will also drastically reduce the possibility of a crisis in world trade like the one seen during the Suez Canal blockage.
The military aspect
The Suez Canal was built to profit from the international trade and was opened on 17th November 1869. In 1888, the maritime powers of the era signed the Convention of Constantinople, which stated bluntly that the canal should be open to ships of all nations in times of both peace and war. Acts of hostility in the waters of the canal and the construction of fortifications on its banks were forbidden by the convention. Great Britain joined the convention in 1904.
There were instances when naval ships were denied access to the Suez Canal, which included denial to Spanish Navy ships during the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Russian Navy during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and the Italian Navy during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-36. In the two World Wars, no party was denied the canal use, but the Allied Forces dominated the canal. Israel was denied the canal use following the armistice between Israel and its Arab opponents in 1949. The canal itself was a battleground during the Suez Crisis of 1956-57 and the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967. Egypt had physically barricaded both ends of the canal during the second crisis. All the three conditions of the Constantinople Convention were broken during these events. The canal was reopened in June 1975 and a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed in 1979 resulting in all ships, including those of Israeli registration, having access to the canal.
During the March 2021 Suez Canal blockage, the Pentagon said that the ongoing stoppage of traffic caused by a grounded container ship in the Suez Canal would affect the movement of U.S. Military vessels, but stressed that the Defense Department had alternative means of supporting operations in the area. “We are not going to talk about specific operational impacts. The Suez Canal is an essential maritime choke point, and the longer passage is suspended, the more impact it will have to civilian and military transits. However, we have alternate capabilities to mitigate impact and support to our operations in U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility throughout any extended blockage,” said Rebecca Rebarich, a public affairs officer with the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet.
The incident made the world rethink the responses to the choke points. A flurry of alternative routes was proposed, including the sea routes and Land – rail routes. Israel too announced the Ben Gurion Canal.
Ben Gurion Canal will give Israel the freedom from blackmail arising out of access to the Suez Canal. Arab states have been leveraging the Red Sea to pressure Israel and in response, Israel has decided to gain more control of the Red Sea. Not just the Arab states, even the African states around the Red Sea have conflicts among themselves and their strategies to deal with it are a concern to the Red Sea stakeholders. These African countries have cultural and economic affinities with the Arab states.
The strategic and mineral based economic potential of Red Sea attracts even the big powers. In the past it was an area of rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union which still continues in a milder manner.
One of the main military benefits for Israel is that it gives Israel the strategic options as the Ben Gurion Canal will totally take away the importance of Suez for the US Military if needed in the aid for Israel.