As the US falters, EU foreign policy chief flies in

Ashton visits Israel, West Bank, Gaza: Can the EU take the lead?

Monday, 15 March, 2010 - 07:45
London, UK

Baroness Ashton, the EU’s recently appointed foreign policy chief, is scheduled to visit Israel on Wednesday and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, on Thursday. She will be the first foreign official to be allowed access to the Gaza Strip via Israel in almost a year.

Given the new low in Israel-US relations as a result of Israel’s approval last week of the building of some 1,600 housing units in a new Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, Ashton’s visit to the region comes at a crucial moment. The Israeli announcement was perceived as a deliberate undermining of the high-profile visit of US Vice-President Joe Biden timed to coincide with a new round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

In his first year, President Obama and his administration have failed to match declared intentions with results. Israel has so far been given no real incentives to change either its expansionist policies in the West Bank, or its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Many believe that the US may choose to step back from proactive intervention and deal with other burning domestic and overseas issues. If this happens, can the EU take the lead?

Israel’s current right-wing government would hardly view the EU as an ally. The European Parliament passed a resolution last week endorsing the Goldstone report and its recommendations. The Israeli media saw it as yet another predictable example of European hostility to Israel. European Union leaders have also strongly condemned the announcement of the additional housing units in east Jerusalem in what is regarded by the EU as uncontestably Israeli occupied territory.

It is hard to see what the EU could gain by adopting the gentle, endlessly ‘gradualist’ approach of the Americans which even centre right EU governments believe has been ruthlessly exploited by the Israeli government to block all real progress towards meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians. In fact, since the Gaza offensive of 2008-9, European member states have increasingly been able to count on significant public and party-political support for adopting a much tougher line. Ashton hinted as much on Saturday, when she mentioned the possibility of the EU using ‘leverage’ to press Israel to change its ways.

The EU has numerous trade agreements with Israel, and Israel has a vested interest in the privileged status it enjoys in Europe. Were the EU to call this into question it could give Israel a reason to change its policies.

Ashton would do well to support pragmatic voices in Israel by making it clear to Prime Minister Netanyahu that there will be practical consequences to violations of human rights. If the Israeli government insists on building settlements in the West Bank, it should not expect its relations with the EU to be upgraded under its Association Agreement.

Ashton’s insistence on visiting Gaza is a welcome development, and sends a clear message to both Israelis and Palestinians. It will be an expression of European responsibility toward the residents of Gaza, and can be used to signal to Israelis that the blockade cannot be ignored.

The visit should also represent a clear commitment to the concept of the integrity of all parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territory. A peace process that engages only the West Bank and its authorities and excludes the 1.4 million residents of Gaza can carry no conviction among Palestinians and will not be viable in the long term.

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