Ashton announces Gaza trip ahead of Quartet talks
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said Saturday she was planning to visit Gaza during a Middle East trip later this month. It would be the first high-level visit in over a year of an EU representative to Gaza, which is under an Israeli blockade and is ruled by Hamas.
‘I have asked to go to Gaza, yes,’ Ashton said at the start of the second and last day of talks with EU foreign ministers in Cordoba, Spain. She did not mention specific dates, but pointed out that her trip starts ‘a week on Sunday.’ Ashton is expected to proceed directly to Moscow on Friday for a meeting of the so-called quartet – a group of Middle East peace sponsors comprising of the EU, United States, Russia and United Nations.
Ashton said she was seeking permission to go from Israel, which controls Gaza’s access points. Her predecessor as EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, last visited the strip in February 2009, in the aftermath of an Israeli invasion that caused significant destruction in the area.
Announcement of the Gaza trip came ahead of EU ministers’ discussions on ways to relaunch the peace process, after US envoy George Mitchell won approval from the Palestinians and the Arab League to restart indirect ‘proximity talks’ with the Israelis. Direct negotiations were broken off in December 2008 after Israel’s attack on Gaza, which it said was necessary to halt a barrage of rocket attacks against its territory.
In late February, France and Spain floated the idea of an EU recognition of the Palestinian state once peace talks were resumed and a ‘Peace Summit‘ was held to support them. But Ashton and Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos – holding a press conference at the end of the Cordoba talks – made no reference to the idea.
Ashton insisted on the EU’s role in ‘supporting the Palestinian Authority, particularly in state building‘ and said given the ‘huge amount of aid’ it receives from the EU it is very important (…) to see what impact it has.’
Moratinos referred to an EU statement made in December, when the bloc’s ministers reiterated support for a two-state solution and called again on Israel to stop building settlements on occupied Palestinian territories. ‘This provocation must stop,’ Luxembourg’s Jean Asselborn said.
His Finnish counterpart, Alexander Stubb, also signaled that the EU was ramping up the pressure on the Israeli side. ‘It takes two to tango (…) if there is no willingness for peace or a settlement on the Israeli side, we might be still here in ten years talking about the same stuff,’ he told journalists. But Stubb himself admitted the EU’s leverage was limited. ‘We can can only help facilitate and mediate, but we can’t be part of a solution,’ he concluded.