• Ms Ashton came down hard on the Israeli government (Photo: European Parliament)

EU's new foreign relations chief criticises Israel

16.12.09 @ 09:35

  1. By Andrew Rettman
  2. Andrew email

BRUSSELS - The EU's new foreign relations chief, Catherine Ashton, criticised Israel in her first speech on the Middle East and unveiled plans to visit the region in the New Year.

Described recently by one Israeli lobbyist as a "tabula rasa" who will be easy to influence because of her lack of foreign policy experience, Ms Ashton came down hard on the Israeli government in an address to MEPs in Strasbourg on Tuesday (15 December).

"East Jerusalem is occupied territory together with the West Bank. The EU is opposed to the destruction of homes, the eviction of Arab residents and the construction of the separation barrier," she said on Israeli activity in the city, which is holy to both Jews and Muslims.

Ms Ashton called Israel's recent decision to temporarily freeze settlement growth outside Jerusalem a "first step," in a cooler tone than EU foreign ministers who last week took "positive note" of the move.

In November, defence minister Ehud Barak ordered a freeze order while at the same time permitted the construction of 28 new public buildings in settlements. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu subsequently declared that settlement construction would resume at the end of a 10-month period.

"We're deeply concerned about the daily living conditions of people in Gaza," she added on Israel's blockade of aid shipments to the strip. "Israel should reopen the crossings without delay."

Her speech was also significant for what it left out: Ms Ashton did not say that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, that it faces a security threat from Palestinian "terrorists" or that Palestinians should immediately return to formal peace talks - the classic arguments of Israeli supporters.

The EU's new foreign relations chief had a dig at the Quartet's special envoy to the region, Tony Blair, who has been markedly sllent while in the job.

"The Quartet [a special group set up by the US, EU, UN and Russia] must demonstrate that it is worth the money, that it is capable of being reinvigorated. I have talked about this with both sides in Jerusalem, to Mr Blair and the [US] secretary of state," she said.

Ms Ashton's office said that she plans to travel to the Middle East to meet leaders in late January or early February, with Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iran also high on her agenda.

The MEPs' debate saw a number of deputies from the left and liberal side of the house call for punitive measures against Israel, ranging from a suspension of the EU's Association Agreement to trade penalties against exports originating in settlements.

Irish centre-left member Proinsias De Rossa, who visited the West Bank last week, called Israeli treatment of Arabs in the occupied territories a form of "apartheid."

Meanwhile, Dutch right-wing deputy Bastiaan Belder, who chairs the parliament's Israel delegation, said that his contacts in Congress in the US think the EU is "mad" to interfere in the Middle East's internal discussions on the future status of East Jerusalem.

Ms Ashton side-stepped the calls for anti-Israeli sanctions but picked up on an institutional question of whether she will sit in the EU commission's benches or next to the EU rotating presidency in future Strasbourg briefings.

"You'll have to build me a seat equidistant to both because I am sure I'll get into trouble with someone wherever I sit," she said, on the subject of her divided loyalties in Brussels.

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