Meet Catherine Ashton, Tony Blair’s pro-Israel proxy in the EU

Israel/Palestine
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Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Catherine Ashton and Tony Blair in Jerusalem, June 19, 2011. (Photo: Moshe Milner, GPO/ Flickr)

Beneath the radar of the US media, Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded in blocking a statement by European Union member states that would have included sharp criticism of illegal Israeli settlement activity and of the general direction of the peace process. Kerry and Netanyahu depended on Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of Foreign Affairs for the EU and a proxy of Quartet Special Representative Tony Blair, to prevent EU member states from delivering the statement at a June 24 Council gathering in Brussels.

In the past year, several European governments have issued declarations calling for a new diplomatic approach to Israel. In April, the Dutch Advisory Council on Foreign Affairs released a report in April that recommended “calling [Israel] to account for violating the law,” and urged reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.

Meanwhile, Irish Tanaiste (the country’s foreign minister) Eamon Gilmore has vowed to use Ireland’s position as President of the EU Council to advance a comprehensive boycott of products from Israeli settlements. And in recent weeks, Irish Palestine solidarity activists have gained traction in local district councils with proposals for settlement product bans, sparking a retaliatory campaign of lawfare and intimidation by Irish pro-Israel groups.

At the EU Council meeting last month, the foreign ministries of the United Kingdom and France planned to advance a united EU call for labeling Israeli settlement products and a condemnation of Israeli abuses of Palestinians living in the West Bank’s Area C. Release on the eve of Kerry’s trip to Jerusalem, the statement would have offered a dramatic rebuke of Washington’s business-as-usual attitude. But the EU ministers were stymied by Ashton, who had just met with Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem.

During the meeting, Netanyahu told Ashton that if she did not block the EU statement, she would open the door for “laying the responsibility for failure on Israel’s shoulders” while giving the Palestinians “a blank check.” Despite Netanyahu’s plans to authorize 930 new homes in the East Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa, Ashton acceded to his request.

Days later, in Brussels, she announced (PDF) that she was “completely supporting John Kerry’s efforts” — even though she did not know a single detail about what Kerry planned to do when he arrived in Jerusalem. “He will tell us all about these proposals when he’s ready to do so,” Ashton promised.

During the 1980’s, Ashton served as treasurer for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a left-wing British anti-war group that urged immediate détente with the Soviet Union. In the 90’s, she rode the wave of New Labor, rising through the ranks of the party under the wing of Tony Blair. In 1999, Blair made Ashton a Labor life peer, entitling her to a seat in the House of Lords. Within a decade, Ashton had secured an appointment as Europe’s top diplomat, giving her control of the EU’s foreign service and a generous salary of around $41,500 a month. Before this, she had no experience in international relations and had never been elected to office.

Since entering the job, Ashton has demonstrated her fealty to Blair at almost every turn. According to a source familiar with proceedings inside the European Union External Action Service (EEAS), which advises Ashton, she has repeatedly stopped meetings to wonder aloud, “What would Tony think about this proposal?” Ashton and Blair joined forces last year to stifle the Palestinian Authority’s campaign for statehood at the UN, a futile maneuver that pitted them against almost the entire EU. She has since worked to eliminate the position of the EU special envoy to the peace process, a move seemingly aimed at further marginalizing European influence. Ashton’s suppression of the EU Council conclusions at Brussels in June represented the culmination of her efforts to keep the US and Israel in the driver’s seat, with Blair playing the third wheel.

Having successfully suppressed European dissension that might have disrupted Kerry’s public relations strategy, Ashton was off to Bahrain, where three EU-Bahraini dual nationals languished in prison for their role in peaceful protests that were violently crushed by the autocratic regime. Seated beside the Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid ibn Ahmad Al Khalifa at a press conference, Ashton and her counterpart “underlined the importance of further strengthening EU-GCC ties,” according to Bahrain’s official news agency.

Back in Jerusalem, Kerry struck an upbeat tone, announcing that he had made “real progress,” and that “the start of final-status negotiations could be within reach.” When asked by reporters for details, however, he was unable to provide any.

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Netanyahu appears to do a magic trick for Catherine Ashton and Tony Blair. Ashton and Blair exchange glances, look confused. (Photo: Moshe Milner, GPO/ Flickr)

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