Wrangling delays EU Gaza visit

Spanish FM open to Lieberman plan for EU to build infrastructure.

July 29, 2010 02:28
3 minute read.
EU media conference in Brussels

EU conference 311. (photo credit: Associated Press)

European Union foreign ministers, who for months and even years have bewailed the humanitarian situation in Gaza and often complained bitterly when Israel did not allow them access to the Strip, have put off a Gaza visit until September because of internal EU bureaucratic and political squabbles.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, on a trip to Italy in late June when the Gaza flotilla incident was very much still high on the international agenda, invited his Italian counterpart to put together a group of five or six European foreign ministers to visit the Strip. This invitation marked a significant departure from the previous Israeli policy of refusing to allow visits of foreign politicians to Gaza.

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But rather than jump on the offer and put together a delegation forthwith, the invitation – according to both Israeli and European diplomats – created a power play inside the EU.

First of all, the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, in a struggle to consolidate her authority over EU foreign affairs, decided to preempt the ministers and came here herself earlier this month, and paid a visit to Gaza. This move, according to diplomatic officials, was designed so she could get to Gaza before the EU foreign ministers and assert her authority on the matter before a meeting of EU foreign ministers held on Tuesday.

Second, Lieberman’s original invitation, which was for the foreign ministers to visit Gaza and also Sderot and the Ashdod port to get a first hand impression of how goods and materials were getting in, was intended for only a handful of ministers, including the foreign ministers of Italy, Spain, France, Britain and Germany.

The problem, one European diplomat said, was that other EU foreign ministers wanted to visit as well. As a result, the trip – originally scheduled for the last week of July – has been pushed off until the first two weeks of September. The European diplomat said that the invitation led to disagreements among the foreign ministers regarding who should go, and that now it would be opened to all EU foreign ministers. But, as a result, such a visit takes considerably more time to organize.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos, on a twoday visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, said after meeting with Lieberman on Wednesday that the EU ministers would go to Gaza in September with some “concrete ideas” regarding a “strategic economic plan for Gaza” and how to deal with Israel’s security needs.

His comments came at a press conference where he was asked about Lieberman’s so called “second disengagement” from Gaza; a plan whereby Israel would eventually cut off all its ties to Gaza, meaning that it would no longer provide electricity and water. Instead, the EU, under this plan, would be asked to help build a power plant, a water desalination plant and a sewage treatment plant to make Gaza self-sufficient.

Moratinos did not reject the idea out of hand and said that a practical plan had to be drawn up.

Lieberman said his plan was aimed at improving the economic situation in the Gaza Strip, while at the same time not strengthening Hamas.

Lieberman said that it was not enough for the EU to make declarations regarding Gaza, but rather it should take part in projects that would improve the Strip’s economic situation.

“To help the economic situation it is important to resolve the two biggest problems: water and electricity,” Lieberman said.

He said the issue of access and movement also had to be addressed, and added bluntly that Israel had a “bad experience” with EU monitors at the Rafah crossing beginning in 2005. “After some threats from Hamas they up and went overnight, and we were stuck with arms smuggling and Hamas,” he said.

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