Ashton: This is a ‘moment of opportunity’ for peace talks

EU Foreign Policy Chief throws her weight behind Obama's vision for peace deal; says now more than ever, Israelis and Palestinians must negotiate.

Catherine Ashton 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Catherine Ashton 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
The European Union on Monday called on Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table, as it threw its support behind US President Barack Obama’s vision for a peace agreement between the two parties.
EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton told reporters after a Brussels meeting of EU Foreign Ministers that this was a “moment of opportunity.”
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She said that more than ever, this was the time for negotiations to begin.
Ashton added that Quartet envoys, representatives of the EU, the US, the UN and Russia would be meeting this week.
Frowning on Palestinian pursuit of unilateral statehood, Ashton said, “The legitimate security interests of Israel and the legitimate demands of the Palestinian people are best met by a negotiated settlement.”
In her brief remarks, she chastised Israel for its continued construction of Jewish homes in east Jerusalem. She said the EU considers this building to be illegal settlement activity.
In its concluding statement, the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council spoke of Jerusalem as the capital of both states.
Israel has insisted that Jerusalem remain its undivided capital.
An Israeli official traveling with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Washington said that statements on Jerusalem, such as the one that the EU made on Monday, served as a disincentive to the Palestinians to return to negotiations.
“Why should the Palestinians return to the table if they are getting what they want without sitting at the table,” the official said.
“Even if the intentions of the Europeans are good, the result is that formulations like these strengthen Palestinian intransigence. There is no substitute for direct negotiations.”
But the EU Foreign Affairs Council in its statement said, “A way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem, as the future capital of two states.”
It added that it still wanted to see the two sides negotiate a settlement to the conflict by September, when the Palestinians are expected to seek UN recognition of statehood.
The council spoke encouragingly of the new unity deal between Fatah and Hamas, and said that it had long wanted the parties to reconcile.
In hopes that the new Palestinian government would be dedicated to the peace process, the EU said that it planned to continue offering it financial assistance and supporting holding a donor conference for the Palestinians in Paris in June.
The council called on Israel to lift its border restrictions on Gaza and said it would be willing to reactivate its border assistance mission at the Rafah crossing that borders Egypt.
But the council also issued a strong warning to Palestinians, saying that its unity government must be dedicated to peace if its wants relations with the EU.
The new Palestinian government, according to the council, “should uphold the principles of nonviolence and remain committed to achieving a two-state solution and to a negotiated peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in accepting past agreements and obligations, including Israel’s legitimate right to exist.
‘The EU’s ongoing engagement with a new Palestinian government will be based on its adherence to these policies and commitments,” the council said.
An Israeli official said he was still concerned that the EU would recognize a unity government that was linked to an unrepentant Hamas.
The official said Netanyahu discussed this matter on Sunday in a meeting with US Jewish leaders, saying that while the US was unequivocally opposed to any engagement with an unreformed Hamas, there were some in Europe looking for “wiggle room” on this matter.
What is needed, Netanyahu said, is “moral clarity” on this issue.