Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet on Sunday approved plans to construct a rail line linking Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean coast to the Red Sea port of Eilat.
The 350-kilometer project is part of a comprehensive push to revamp the country's transport infrastructure, and is due to begin operations five years from the start of construction.
"In the coming decade, new powers will rise and the State of Israel must create vital interests from a national point-of-view," Netanyahu's bureau quoted him as saying in a statement.
The prime minister said the rail line would constitute an alternative transportation route that bypasses the Suez Canal, significantly shortening the current route freight ships use to reach the Mediterranean.
"This is an insurance policy. Israel must become a continental land crossing route and create great power interests," Netanyahu said.
The Israeli government seeks to double the population of the Negev, a vast desert region largely uninhibited, to 1.2 million by 2025. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, devoted much of his career to realizing his vision of inhabiting the area. The railway's planners say it would help spur regional development, including housing and new employment opportunities, and entice Israelis to leave the country's congested center.
Once in place, the railway will cut travel time from Eilat, at Israel's southernmost tip, to the country's center down to two hours. Eilat's hoteliers say that would dramatically raise tourism to their city, with visitors currently forced to drive near four hours or take a commuter flight.
"It will change the face of the country. For 63 years, there has been talk about linking the periphery to the center, but nothing was done," Netanyahu said, adding, "The railway and Israel 's natural gas resources can forge strong economic links."
Netanyahu said he tasked the director-general of his office, Harel Locker, to head a team that will review options for financing the 27 billion USD project, whether through state funding, cooperation with the private sector, or an inter- governmental agreement between Israel and another government with which Israel maintains economic and strategic interests.
At a meeting with Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming in Israel last March, Netanyahu proposed that the two countries cooperate in such a project, after a Chinese firm last year completed a tunnel in the northern port city of Haifa ahead of schedule.
Another Chinese group has been awarded a contract to build a railway between Haifa and city of Carmiel in the Upper Galilee.