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EU Renews Push for Mideast Peace Talks

16 mars 2010

Middle East peace talks are “urgent”, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton has told the Arab League in Cairo at the start of a visit to the region.

These talks are urgent,” she said. “Urgent because I fear for the future. Urgent, because Israel has a popular Prime Minister who owes it to his people to move to the [two-state] solution he supports. Urgent, because the Palestinians… are willing to engage.”

The visit comes at a time of increased tensions over Israeli settlements. The Middle East Quartet (UN, EU, Russia and US) on Friday issued a statement condemning Israel’s decision to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem. “The Quartet re-affirms that unilateral actions taken by either party cannot prejudge the outcome of negotiations and will not be recognized by the international community.”

Some key extracts of the speech (full text available as pdf here):

« The primary purpose of my visit is to show the continued importance that the European Union attaches to the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is a vital European interest and is central to the solution of other problems in the region. » (…)

« The parameters of a negotiated settlement are well known. A two-state solution with Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security. Our aim is a viable State of Palestine in the West Bank including East Jerusalem and the Gaza strip, on the basis of the 1967 lines. » (…)

« Recent Israeli decisions to build new housing units in East Jerusalem have endangered and undermined the tentative agreement to begin proximity talks. The EU position on settlements is clear. Settlements are illegal, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible. »

« But there are many obstacles (to a solution). The decision to list cultural and religious sites based in the occupied Palestinian territory as Israeli is counter-productive. The blockade of Gaza is unacceptable. It has created enormous human suffering and greatly harms the potential to move forward. « (…)

« The Palestinians too of course have responsibilities. First however I want to commend President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad for showing us that they can build the institutions of a future Palestinian State. But the Palestinians must get their house in order. Continued Palestinian divisions do not serve their interests. The political and physical separation between Gaza and the West Bank is dangerous. Palestinian reconciliation is more crucial than ever. The PLO must take its responsibilities in this regard, and face the challenge of renewal and reform. » (…)

« Europe is also ready to take its responsibility. The European Union will continue to support Palestinian institution building. But this must not come at the expense of the peace process. Institution building must facilitate the peace process and not replace it. We are working in partnership with the Palestinian Authority to build the institutions they will need to have when the State is established. »

The High Representative also said she would visit the Gaza Strip: “I will travel to Gaza myself to meet with the population and at the same time assess how our support is working on the ground.”

Catherine Ashton will stay in the region until Thursday, 18 March, visiting Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Gaza, before going on to Moscow on Friday for a meeting of the Quartet.

In Damascus, the European Union’s top diplomat Tuesday called on Syria and Israel to resume indirect peace talks, which have been stalled since last year. Speaking at a joint press conference in Damascus with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem EU foreign-policy director Catherine Ashton said resuming the Syrian-Israeli negotiations was ‘extremely important‘ for the EU.

The most important issue for the EU is to push the two sides to activate their talks,’ Ashton said, noting that the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict would pave the way for wider agreements in the region.

Earlier this month, Turkey announced that it was prepared to resume mediating indirect talks between Syria and Israel, but only if both parties agreed. Negotiations reached a stalemate after the resignation of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Syria then withdrew from the talks in protest at Israel’s three-week offensive in the Gaza Strip early last year.

We did not receive a time frame from Turkey for the negotiations,’ said al-Moallem, ‘but Syria has full confidence in Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.’

During her visit to Damascus, Ashton met with President Bashar al- Assad and discussed bilateral relations, as well as means to foster the EU’s role in the region.

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