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29th Mar 2020

Former EU leaders challenge Ashton on Israel

  • Graffiti on Israel's wall in East Jerusalem. 'Time is fast running out' the letter says (Photo: Reham Alhelsi)

A large group of former EU leaders and commissioners, including Catherine Ashton's predecessor Javier Solana, has urged the Union to take sanctions against Israel on settlements. But Ms Ashton's reply indicates the plea will go unheard.

The group in a letter to EU capitals and the leaders of the EU institutions on 6 December, seen by EUobserver, says that Israel "like any other state" should be made to feel "the consequences" and pay "a price tag" for breaking international law by building thousands of new Jewish homes on Palestinian land.

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It asks EU foreign ministers at a meeting in Brussels on 13 December to state as doctrine that the EU: "Will not recognize any changes to the June 1967 boundaries, and clarify that a Palestinian state should be in sovereign control over territory equivalent to 100 percent of the territory occupied in 1967, including its capital in East Jerusalem."

It also asks ministers to set an ultimatum of April 2011 for Israel to fall into line or see the Union seek an end to the existing US-led peace talks in favour of a UN solution.

On top of this, the bloc should: officially link its informal freeze on an upgrade in EU-Irsael diplomatic relations to a settlement freeze; block imports of products made in settlements but labelled as made in Israel; make Israel pay the lion's share of aid to Palestine; send a high-level delegation to East Jerusalem to back Palestinian claims; and reclassify EU support for Palestine as "nation building" instead of "institution building."

The letter warns in a note of urgency that "time is fast running out" because "Israel's continuation of settlement activity ... poses an existential threat to the prospects of establishing a sovereign, contiguous and viable Palestinian state."

Criticising existing EU policy, it adds that tough action is "a matter of fundamental credibility" for the bloc, which risks deterioration in its ties with Arab trade partners. "The EU needs to act more pro-actively in its relations with the US, Israel and others to promote the fulfillment of this objective," it says.

The letter is signed by 26 notables including 10 former leaders of European countries, 10 former ministers and several former EU commissioners. The roll-call includes former German chancellor Helmut Schmid, former German president Richard von Weizsacker, one-time Spanish leader Felipe Gonzales, ex-EU commission president and Italian PM Romano Prodi and the UK's former EU commissioner Chris Patten. It also represents the first time that the forerunner of EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, Javier Solana, has come out of the wings to challenge the newcomer.

The proposals reads like a red rag to a bull as far as Israel is concerned.

Israel lobbied last year to stop the EU from saying that East Jerusalem, which Israel considers part of its "indivisible" capital, should be the centre of a new Palestinian state. It also has a vested interest in keeping its closest ally, the US, in charge of the peace process instead of involving hostile Arab countries under the UN umbrella.

EU ministers are set to discuss the Middle East at their 13 December meeting, but the bloc is currently in wait-and-see mode on US efforts to try to resume peace talks, which stalled in September.

Ms Ashton has over the past year invested plenty of energy in building a relationship with US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell on the peace process. Her policy has been to accept US leadership on big diplomacy, while focusing on EU help for the Palestinian Authorities to build institutions, such as a normal treasury and judicial system, so that Jews and Arabs can live side-by-side more easily pending a long-term solution.

In a letter of response to the former leaders, dated 7 December and also seen by this website, she indicates that her approach will remain unchanged for the time being.

Ms Ashton says the idea of 1967 borders is "commonly accepted" but does not mention the thorny issue of how to share East Jerusalem, indicating that its status as a future Palestinian capital is up for negotiation.

She goes on to support the current format for international Middle East diplomacy and does not mention any threat to formally freeze the EU-Israel upgrade. While accepting that it is "important" settlement-origin products do not get preferential EU tariffs, she also ignores the idea of an EU trade block on 'mislabelled' goods.

"The implementation of the [EU's previous] conclusions is proceeding on several fronts," Ms Ashton says. "The European Union will continue to be at the forefront of efforts to advance the peace process and engage with both the Palestinians and the Israelis to find a way to resolve the conflict."

Her approach is in line with the US' long-standing vision for the EU's role in the region.

In a leaked US cable dating back to a pre-Ashton-period meeting between senior US diplomat Phil Gordon and EU counterparts in July 2009, Mr Gordon said: "There might be benefits in Washington focusing its efforts on getting a stop to settlement activity while the EU focused on efforts to build security in the PA-administered [Palestinian-Authority-administered] territories."

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