EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Cairo on Monday.
CAIRO-BRUSSELS (EJP)---Israel's plans to build new housing units in east Jerusalem “threaten the renewal of peace talks with the Palestinians,” the European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said on Monday at the beginning of her five-day Mideast tour.
In a speech at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Ashton said:”recent Israeli decisions to build new housing units in East Jerusalem have endangered and undermined the tentative agreement to begin proximity talks. “
She added that the EU position on settlements is clear. “Settlements are illegal, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible. A solution that the Israeli Prime Minister says he supports. He is right, and these talks are urgent.”
“Urgent, because Israel has a popular Prime Minister who owes it to his people to move to the solution he supports. Urgent, because the Palestinians, despite everything, and with your and our support, are willing to engage.”
Ashton, who has been very critical of Israel’s policy since taking her post as High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in December, also said the decision “to list cultural and religious sites based in the occupied Palestinian territory as Israeli” is "counter-productive."
"This region does not need more conflict. It needs peace. Peace based on international law. Peace now because any delay will only make it harder to achieve," Ashton said in her speech to the League of Arab States.
Ashton’s Middle East tour, her first since her appointment, will also take her over the course of the week to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Israel decided to make an exception to its policy of prohibiting visits to the Gaza Strip and agreed to facilitate Ashton's entry to the Gaza Strip in order to allow her to get a firsthand impression of humanitarian activities taking place there.
Israel's concern is that a flood of Foreign Ministers into the area could give Hamas legitimacy. However, Ashton has said she will not be meeting Hamas officials.
Tense EU-Israel relations
Ties between the EU and Israel have deteriorated last year when Sweden held the EU rotating presidency.
Sweden’s Carl Bildt was the first European Foreign Minister who did not visit Israel during the rotating 6-month-term.
In December 2009, the last days of his presidency, Bildt tried to suggest the partition of Jerusalem on behalf of the EU.
In January, Spain took over the EU presidency at a time when relations between the EU and Israel were already strained.
However, under the Lisbon treaty’s new legal framework which came into force in December, the country which chairs the EU has less power to affect the EU’s foreign policy which is now in Ashton's hands.