Catherine Ashton

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European Union Special Representative to the Quartet

Overview and Background

You have been granted an unusual character, the Baroness Catherine Ashton. Born in Upholand Lancashire, you have led an unusual political life. You began as Director of Business in your community. From there you continued to climb the political ladder. You ascended through the Labour party, a left wing political party in Britain, to become the leader for the House of Lords (Britain’s rough equivalent of the Senate). From the House of Lords, you entered into the international arena, serving initially as the EU Trade Commissioner. This was a natural role for you, with your educational background being in economics and your past work experience suiting this role perfectly. The shining point of your career as Trade Commissioner was the signing of a free trade agreement with South Korea, no small feat.

Your appointment as High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy caught most everyone by surprise, including yourself. It is important here to note that you took a leave of absence from the House of Lords in order to join the EU. This means that you will potentially return to it upon fulfilling your duties to the EU. It also means that the British conservative parties have a vested interest in attacking your performance at the EU. Though your political experience was limited, and many considered you a dark-horse candidate for the High Representative's position, your lack of exposure and lack of enemies actually worked for you, and you were easily elected with a large majority of the votes in your favor. Since your election, you have been attacked on all sides for not “taking your job seriously” and for a general lack of experience in the political arena. While many have risen to your defense, there are several gaffes which warrant mentioning since you must try to avoid any similar mistakes. </p> A major criticism occurred when you attended the inauguration of Viktor Yakonovych, the President of the Ukraine, instead of attending an important EU Defense Council meeting. Another important criticism is that you responded too slowly to the Haitian earthquake, arriving at the scene four weeks after the earthquake occurred. Unlike other officials in your position, you do not have access to private air travel. This means that you have to hitch rides with the militaries of member nations, or ride commercially. Still, it is important to note that your political career relies on you being seen as active, engaged, taking a leadership role, and strengthening Europe’s position in the world. Thus, you have a personal stake in being seen as an active, positive force in peace negotiations.

In your efforts to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, you have taken a very proactive and hands-on approach. Early on in your tenure you visited the Gaza Strip, a truly important gesture that showed a clear mark of divergence between you and your American counterparts. While this trip did evoke some criticism in Israel and some criticism in the U.S. the European populace was much more accepting of it, viewing it as a necessary part of the political process. While in Gaza you have importantly condemned all violence and at the same time called for the opening of Gaza’s borders. In order to facilitate this, you have offered assistance in strengthening the infrastructure at the borders. It is important here to note that you tend to view conflicts through an economic lens. While you certainly stress the importance of humanitarian aid, your vision goes beyond that to the economics of the Gaza Strip. In order for Gaza to be stable, you understand that it must be allowed to rebuild, export goods, and import goods. It is through a stable economy that Gaza can begin to rebuild. To that end you have condemned, with the backing of the EU, the Israeli embargo of Gaza. It must be stated that you also have strongly condemned the use of violence by any parties. Here is an example of the type of strong language which you have employed: . </p>

On the settlement issue, you clearly convey the EU’s policy. The EU respects Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation, however, it views the Israeli presence in the West Bank as an illegal occupation under international law. Settlement construction is viewed both as illegal and as a roadblock to peace. You have condemned recent Israeli plans to increase settlements in East Jerusalem and in other areas of the West Bank. Here, it is important to note what the EU views as the rightful boundaries of Israel. The EU adheres to U.N. resolution 242, which views the borders of Israel as those existing before the 1967 war. This is the so-called green line. Any Israeli construction which occurs on the other side of the Green Line is seen by the EU as illegal and is termed a settlement. Importantly, the Green Line divides Jerusalem in half. The EU views East Jerusalem as the rightful capitol of a Palestinian nation and West Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel.

You are a cautious actor. You do not stray from the policies of the EU, as it is your job to represent these policies at all times. With the proposed U.N. vote on the issue of Palestinian statehood, you reacted cautiously, stating that your office would study the issue with great interest. This is a very different reaction from other nations, who condemned the actions of the Palestinian Authority as torpedoing bilateral talks, which had been seen previously as the key to peace. This said, you do not take the EU’s ties with Israel lightly. A true diplomat, you attempt to seek a middle ground which will both facilitate progress and not alienate the Israelis. Still, your strong stance on human rights issues, settlement construction, the separation barrier, and Gaza have made you unpopular amongst more conservative politicians in Israel. It is important that you not shy away from condemning those actions which you see as running counter to EU policies. Here you have more leverage than American politicians. Israel desperately needs EU trade; however, there is no large pro-Israel lobby in the EU. This means that there is not a large amount of pressure on you to turn a blind eye to Israel’s policies. The EU could lose all trade with Israel and walk away with just a black eye. However, for Israel, the EU is a pivotal trading partner. You understand this and you don't shy away from levying criticism at Israel and the Palestinian Authority where necessary.</p>

Israeli reaction to your appointment as High Commissioner

The Israeli media reacted negatively to your appointment, and even the Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel, Danny Ayalon, responded in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. A15 Although he did not attack you in his editorial, he did respond very publicly to your claims that Israel is occupying Gaza and the West Bank (he disputes that they can be called "occupied," since they were never legally recognized to begin with). Others in the Israeli media, however, did attack you directly, stating that you showed your "much-deserved reputation as a foreign-policy novice." A14 Still, the criticism seems to be less about what you said than about your choice to emphasize Israel's responsibilities for restoring peace rather than giving equal emphasis to both sides.

"Almost as revealing as Lady Ashton's criticism of Israel was her silence about continued Palestinian incitement to violence or Hamas's brutal rule in Gaza. While lambasting Israel's "occupation," she failed to acknowledge that it is the Palestinians' refusal to restart negotiations, rather than Israeli intransigence, that stands in the way of a Palestinian state." A14

Although Israel is not pleased with your opening comments, you accurately reflected the previously stated beliefs of the EU toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, and you have made consistent efforts to with both sides. It's safe to say that your opinions on the conflict have yet to be fully formed.

In January 2010, at your confirmation hearing, you shifted to a more neutral tone toward Israel, while criticizing Iran for not giving in to international demands about its nuclear programs. Specifically, you acknowledged, "The State of Israel has the right to exist securely and safely in the Middle East, as does the Palestinian state." A13 While these comments were not particularly supportive of Israel, you at least demonstrated that you are willing to acknowledge the rights and responsibilities of both sides in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

Being Catherine Ashton

You are a learned individual who is quickly becoming an experienced diplomat. Within the Arab-Israeli conflict, it is important that you appear pro-active and engaged. Your political career relies on your activity and you know this. You should be concerned with directly engaging those nations with which you have diplomatic cause. Whether it be Iran, Israel, or Palestine you have a vested interest in being engaged. Just as when you were EU High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, you must act and be visible, and you must also remember that you cannot go around burning bridges. It is one thing to denounce Iran's policy regarding opposition parties, it is another thing to sever all trade with the country until it reforms. Here is where caution and prudence will earn you much respect. To appease those who seek strong words against Iran and at the same time not permanently alienate the Iranian government, this is the line you must tread. Your term as EU High Representative for Foreign policy ended in 2014, and you are now the European Union's Special Representative to the Quartet, and you must now devote yourself to the significant task of making the Quartet relevant to the conversation about Middle East peace. With the most recent failure of American mediated peace talks, and with the defeat of the Palestinian appeal for statehood in the UN, perhaps the time is right for a different kids of initiative, one that define a productive role for the West in achieving a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


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