Katz Makes Waves With Gaza Seaport Plan

Israel’s transportation and intelligence minister Yisrael Katz speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, in his office in Tel Aviv, Tuesday. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

Israel’s powerful transportation and intelligence minister says he is pushing forward with a proposal to build an artificial island with a seaport off the coast of Hamas-ruled Gaza that he believes will alleviate hardship in the blockaded territory and offer residents their first real bridge to the outside world in a decade.

With an independent Palestinian state unlikely anytime soon, Yisrael Katz told The Associated Press that an island for moving goods in and out of Gaza was part of his broader goal of creating regional security and “economic peace” between Israel and its neighbors. The plan has been derided by critics as impractical but presents a bold platform for Katz, who speaks openly of succeeding Binyamin Netanyahu even as the embattled prime minister faces a series of potentially devastating corruption probes.

Katz’s plan calls for a three-square-mile island linked to Gaza by a three-mile bridge. The island, estimated to cost $5 billion, would take five years to build and include a seaport, a power station, a desalination plant and perhaps a future airport. Israel would supervise security, but it would otherwise be run by the Palestinians and the international community — which he says would mark the completion of Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza.

“No Palestinian can oppose this, not Mahmoud Abbas and not Hamas, because it gives them an opening to the world,” Katz said in an interview at his Tel Aviv office. “In an absurd way, we are giving Hamas the keys to the world’s largest prison.”

The Palestinians have greeted the plan with skepticism, concerned that it is an Israeli power play whose real aim is to augment control over Gaza and further sever the territory from Yehuda and Shomron.

Nabil Shaath, Abbas’ adviser for foreign affairs, said that the Palestinians have their own plans for developing Gaza’s coastline. “We are capable of taking care of ourselves. All we need is for Israel to leave us alone and lift the siege on Gaza,” he said.

He said Israel has rejected a number of initiatives over the years on security grounds. These include a French-Dutch offer to build a seaport in Gaza and a proposal for the Palestinians to rent a port in Cyprus, where international inspectors could check all cargo before it is shipped to Gaza.

Hamas declined comment.

While the plan seems like a long shot, the idea has helped brand Katz as a creative thinker. The veteran Cabinet minister is currently Netanyahu’s top deputy and has long been a power broker in the ruling Likud Party but remains generally unknown internationally.

Katz made it clear he considers himself Netanyahu’s natural successor but would not challenge the prime minister as long as he remains in power.

“The day he retires, I am running for head of Likud and prime minister,” Katz stated.

Katz said the island would be in international waters and could provide economic independence to Palestinians while allowing Israel to still vet security.

He said Israel’s security establishment backs the plan, and he is pressuring Netanyahu to bring it up soon for a Cabinet vote. After that, international bodies would have to get involved in the implementation and funding.

Katz said he has gotten positive feedback from the U.S. and from Arab countries and that he believes wealthy Arab governments would pick up the hefty tab, though he declined to identify them. Officials in Saudi Arabia and with the Gulf Cooperation Council did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Although he himself opposes the creation of a Palestinian state, Katz said none of his initiatives inhibit future negotiations. “I’m talking about an interim arrangement for 10 to 15 years that can lower violence and friction, loosen the reins on the population and let them develop,” he said.