EUOBSERVER / SAARISELKA - On the eve of her first trip to the Middle East, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has said she will urge a restart of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.
Speaking in Northern Finland, where she is taking part in informal discussions with seven other foreign ministers, Ms Ashton said she "will make it clear ...that we want to see the parties get back to talks."
"We know the solution lies in their negotiation: I believe the time is right to do that while things are quite calm comparatively."
The EU's top diplomat is travelling to the region just as plans for indirect talks between the two sides have been put in doubt after Israel gave the go-ahead for plans to build a further 1,600 homes for Jewish settlers in occupied East Jerusalem.
The timing - the housing move was announced just before US vice president Joe Biden was due to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - and the substance of the decision have been criticised by Washington and Brussels.
Ms Ashton aims to appeal to Mr Netanyahu to use his domestic popularity to help start the talks. The relative calm of recent months is "the moment at which a leader has to display leadership by taking his people to the possibility of long-term calm and prosperity, and that can only be done by a settlement," she said.
Spanish foreign minister Miguel Moratinos, also present at the Finnish meeting, said the Ashton visit is: "very timely and very important." He also underlined the urgency of getting the talks back on track.
"If we wait for more than two years, it will be too late, because ...there will be no object to negotiate, because there will be no land, and there will be no subject with whom to negotiate, because the Palestinian moderate leadership will not be able to maintain themselves as a peaceful partner," he said.
The EU ministers were conscious of the limits of what Ms Ashton can achieve on her trip.
Finnish minister Alexander Stubb, who organised the get-together in Lapland, said the EU "should not expect too much" from the visit, noting that if the Israelis allow her into Gaza, which is ruled by the militant Hamas group, it will be very "significant and symbolic." Israel at the beginning of the week said it would authorise entry to the Gaza strip for Ashton but the political dynamics have changed following the housing decision.
Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, a widely respected foreign affairs strategist in the EU, said Israel's decision has opened the question of whether it is really committed to peace talks.
"There have been distinctly mixed signals recently. The government says that they are interested in re-starting the peace negotiations, but I think the signal that was sent the other day ...sent of course a decidedly bad signal," he said.
"It's now up to the Israeli government to really prove that they want the peace that is essential."
Summing up her own intentions for the visit, widely seen as her biggest public foreign policy test to date, Ms Ashton said: "It's my opportunity to meet with the key players in the region, the key people who will make a difference to the region in the end."
"Secondly, [it is] the chance to go and visit perhaps particularly Israel, Palestine. I am going into Gaza to see how EU aid is being spent. I am responsible for that and it is very important to get a chance to see how we are doing."
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