European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is slated to visit Israel on Wednesday, less than a week after she attacked Jerusalem for expanding Jewish building in the eastern portion of the capital and less than 10 days after the EU tightened sanctions against Iran, a move widely applauded in Israel.
Before landing in Tel Aviv, Ashton will visit Jordan and Lebanon. Once in Jerusalem, she is scheduled to meet President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, her office announced. Later on Wednesday, she will meet with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The next day, she will meet with PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
“This is a critical time for the wider Middle East,” Ashton said, adding that close cooperation between the EU and its partners in the region is essential in dealing with the political, strategic and humanitarian challenges in the region. “The objective of this trip is to take this cooperation forward as effectively as possible.”
During the meeting with the president, Peres and Ashton will discuss the Israeli-Palesti
The Prime Minister’s Office on Monday did not want to comment on the upcoming talks with Ashton.
On Friday, Ashton criticized Israel for approving 800 new housing units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, stating that “settlements are illegal under international law and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible.” Her comments drew sharp criticism from Israeli government officials.
“These condemnations contribute nothing to the advancement of dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians,” Liberman said Saturday. “They only encourage the Palestinian side to stick to its refusal to negotiate and continue its anti-Israeli activities in the international arena.”
Netanyahu also responded to Ashton’s statement, saying Sunday at the weekly cabinet meeting that his government was not about to place “any restrictions” on construction in Jerusalem. “It is our capital. Just as there is construction in every capital, in London, Paris, Washington and Moscow, Israel is building in Jerusalem,” he said.
Just a few days before Jerusalem rebuffed Ashton’s statement on Gilo, the government had kind words for her regarding the EU’s increasingly tough stance on Iran. Last Monday, the EU foreign ministers decided to substantially increase sanctions against Tehran in a bid to convince the regime to abandon its nuclear program, including banning imports of Iranian natural gas and other restrictions on the country’s infrastructure development.
Speaking to the ambassadors of EU member states in Israel, Netanyahu lauded the union for the “tough sanctions” against what he called the “biggest threat to peace in our time.”
Liberman also lauded the EU for stepping up the sanctions against Iran. “This is a resolute and important step, worthy of significant appreciation, especially as it has been in a difficult economic period,” he wrote to Catherine Ashton on Tuesday.
In the letter, Liberman said it was appropriate to “provide public expression to my gratitude and to our appreciation for your determination in preventing Iran’s nuclear proliferation plans,” but at the same time acknowledged that “there have been and remain certain disagreements on various subjects” between the EU and Israel, referring specifically to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israeli expansion of West Bank settlements.
Ashton’s Middle East tour starts Tuesday in Amman, where she will meet the Jordanian king, Abdullah II, and Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, and visit a Zaatary refugee camp and meet with Syrian refugees. On the same day, she will also meet with Lebanese leaders in Beirut, but her office did not specify whom she would see.