Last updated: 28 August, 2011

Ashton talks of stalled peace process with Israeli leaders

Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s chief diplomat, on Sunday met Israeli leaders to discuss the stalled Mideast peace process, as Palestinians plan to seek UN membership next month.

“The contribution of Europe to the peace process is very important as we approach the (UN) General Assembly,” said Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak before talks with Ashton.

But he said “we believe that it is very unfortunate and unproductive that the Palestinians are approaching the UN General Assembly.”

Ashton, welcomed Sunday evening by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, merely indicated that she was “coming to the region to continue discussions with the Palestinians and Israelis on the Middle East peace process.”

In a brief statement she said “it is her desire that peace negotiations restart.”

Ashton arrived in the region on Saturday for a three-day visit aimed at pushing Israel and the Palestinians to resume direct negotiations, which have been on hold since last September in an intractable dispute over Jewish settlement building.

Earlier on Sunday, Ashton laid the foundation stone of a new office building of the Palestinian Authority in Jenin in the northern West Bank in the presence of Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad.

There she praised Fayyad “for his incredible work to build institutions of a state.”

On Saturday, she met Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas who has sought the support of EU members towards Palestinians’ plan to seek UN membership next month. Israel strongly opposes the plan.

“The unilateral demand of the Palestinians is a violation of commitments by the Palestinians in their agreements with Israel,” Netanyahu warned in talks Sunday with Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr-Store.

The Palestinian leadership sees “progress” in the European Union’s position on its plan, a senior PLO official told AFP on Sunday.

“There is progress in the European stance and a willingness to coordinate with the Palestinian leadership over the type of resolution we are looking for,” said PLO secretary general Yasser Abed Rabbo.

During talks with Abbas on Saturday evening, Ashton said the EU position would depend on the wording of the Palestinian proposal to be presented to UN chief Ban Ki-moon on September 20, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.

Europe is currently divided over the Palestinian bid for UN membership, with Germany and Italy publicly opposed to the move, while Spain has said it will vote in favour; Britain and France are keeping their cards close to their chests.

Palestinians expect “more than 150 countries” of the 192 UN member countries to endorse Palestinian membership.

This, however, is still not enough to ratify an application for UN membership, which must be approved by the UN Security Council where Washington has pledged to use its veto against the initiative.

But the General Assembly could raise the Palestinians’ standing at the UN from its current observer status to that of a non-member state, Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Malki and other officials have said.