EU rep pontificates on region, side-steps Egypt issues

European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Catherine Ashton kicked off her first Middle East tour with a visit to Egypt, during which she delivered a speech affirming the EU’s continued support for the "peace process" and expressing worries about Iranian nuclear ambitions.

References to domestic Egyptian politics–or Egypt’s role in Middle East peacemaking–were, however, conspicuously absent.

During her week-long regional tour, Ashton is slated to meet with political leaders and civil society representatives, along wtih chief officers of various EU security missions, including the EU Border Assistance Mission in rafah and the EU Police Mission for the Palestinian Territories. After Egypt, Ashton is expected to make stops in Gaza, the West Bank, Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.

Regarding the Iranian drive to establish a nuclear-energy program that Tehran says is for civilian purposes, Ashton referred to a “deficit of trust.”

“One of the key challenges that we remain deeply concerned about is Iranian unwillingness to engage in serious talks on the nuclear question,” she said. She signaled the EU’s endorsement of future sanctions on Iran, noting that the European super-state would fully support any UN Security Council resolution that called for additional punitive measures against Iran if the latter continued to ignore its "international obligations."

On the Israel-Palestine conflict, Ashton highlighted the EU’s commitment to Israeli security and to the notion of a two-state solution within the context of 1967 borders. “As the EU, we have a firm commitment to the security of Israel and we stand for a deal that delivers justice, freedom and dignity to the Palestinians,” she claimed.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa responded to Ashton’s statements on the alleged threats posed by Iran’s nuclear endeavors by pointing to Israel’s vast nuclear arsenal, estimated to comprise hundreds of nuclear warheads.

“The relation between us and Europe is indeed [one of an] old history and common destiny," he said. "Since there is a common destiny, then the threat to our own security is very important… We have to be fair and objective and strategic about what we do."

"If we are against any nuclear actions, we [should stop] mentioning only one country,” Moussa added. “I wish to mention that Israeli nuclear activities are very disturbing and threatening to us.”

Ashton, for her part, described the continued construction by Israel of Jewish-only settlements on occupied Arab land as illegal. “Recent Israeli decisions to build new housing units in East Jerusalem have endangered and undermined the tentative agreement to begin proximity talks,” she said.

She went on to point to additional obstacles to a viable political settlement, including the three-year-old blockade of the Gaza Strip and the recent Israeli decision to include Islamic religious sites in occupied territories on a list of "Israeli heritage" sites, describing both moves as “counter-productive." In reference to the ongoing rivalry between Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah, she also noted the Palestinians’ need to “get their house in order.”

Despite these impediments, Moussa declared that "proximity talks" between Israel and the Palestinians should resume immediately. “This was a decision we discussed for four hours–should we or shouldn’t we," he said. "Since there are assurances, let’s see what happens. I hope that we don’t regret the decision.”

Ashton identified four areas in which the EU would continue to support peace talks.

One of these is to politically support the negotiating parties through the statement of principles announced last December; another is through financial support, conditioned on progress made in Palestinian state-building. According to Ashton, the EU is ready to “consider providing further political, financial and security guarantees to facilitate the peace process.” This support has already been manifested, she said, in the security missions currently deployed in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, southern Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories, along with the financial assistance provided to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Finally, Ashton called for the “reinvigoration" of the so-called Quartet–namely, the US, the EU, Russia and the UN–affirming that she planned to encourage more frequent conventions on the progress of peace talks when she visits Moscow following her current Middle East tour. Next week, a meeting of Quartet representatives will be held in Russia, which Ashton expects will provide "momentum” for the scheduled proximity talks.

Ashton was appointed to her current post in November 2009, before which she worked as EU trade commissioner, despite her relative lack of experience in foreign affairs. Through her work as a member of British Parliament, she participated in negotiations for the EU framework agreement, also known as the Lisbon Treaty.

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