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Peres presidency could kick-start joint Arab-Israeli airport plan

 - November 13, 2007, 5:11 AM

This year’s election of Shimon Peres as Israel’s president could revitalize dormant plans for developing Jordan’s King Hussein International Airport at Aqaba as a regional hub to serve both countries. The airport sits at the north end of the Red Sea, across the Gulf of Aqaba from the Israeli resort city of Eilat.

A possible Arab-Israeli joint venture at the location, which is at the southern end of the 320-mile rift valley that marks the international border between the two countries, has been discussed as long ago as the signing of the 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. At that time Peres–who calls the location “Peace Valley”–was deputy prime minister and responsible for development of the Negev desert in southern Israel.

The two countries signed an agreement to proceed with the project in 1997, but it foundered three years later after the Palestinian intifada. Now, Peres has pointed out that while Israel has been planning a new airport at Eilat, a joint venture at Aqaba would save his country money while providing Jordan with landing rights and fees.
For its part, in 2003 Jordan declared Aqaba an “open skies” airport and designated the region a special economic zone. Apart from Queen Alia International Airport, about 20 miles south of the Jordanian capital Amman, Aqaba is the country’s only other international airport.

An integrated development study of the area in the mid-1990s outlined projects that covered the environment, water, energy, transport and tourism that would benefit from investment in the airport. Ideas have included possible establishment of an Aqaba/Eilat free-trade zone aimed at creating “an economic hub for the northern peninsula of the Red Sea, Israel and Jordan,” according to the U.S. Department of State.

Peres has called for construction of a canal that would support development of a new port to replace existing under-used facilities at Aqaba and Eilat and would permit water to be funneled to the Dead Sea, which has suffered major evaporation.
He also envisions a single railroad in place of existing parallel lines run by the two countries. Earlier this year, Israel declared the Peace Valley plan a “national project,” a designation that could increase its priority in government planning and procedures.