EU has leverage with Israel on talks - Ashton

Sat Mar 13, 2010 12:59pm GMT

By Luke Baker

SAARISELKA, Finland (Reuters) - The European Union could use closer trade ties as leverage to urge Israel to resume peace talks with the Palestinians, the EU's top diplomat said on Saturday ahead of a trip to the region.

EU high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, who begins her first visit to the Middle East on Sunday, said the European Union would be active in getting peace talks to resume and had influence in the issue.

"We're a huge supplier of aid and development in that region. We are strong with Israel in terms of trade and Israel wants to enhance its relationship with us, it wants to upgrade relations," she said when asked what leverage the EU could have in talks given that the United States has struggled to be heard.

"Our ambition is that they know -- because they do -- that the solution lies in a negotiated settlement. Our view is that it needs to happen quickly and now, with the opportunity that that affords Israel ... to be able to enhance the relationships it wants with us in any event for the future."

Ashton, who flies to Egypt on Sunday and is due in Israel on Wednesday after stopovers in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, said it was not about withholding Israel's access to EU markets, but about showing what more could be granted if progress was made.

"What we have at the moment is a traditional relationship with Israel, they would like more," she said.

The trip to the Middle East is Ashton's most high-profile diplomatic mission since becoming the EU's high representative last December, succeeding Javier Solana, who focussed much of his time in office on Iran and Middle East negotiations.

Ashton's visit comes at a sensitive time, with the United States expressing frustration with Israel on Friday over plans to build 1,600 settler homes in East Jerusalem, an announcement made while U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden was visiting.   Continued...

<p>EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Catherine Ashton holds a news conference after a EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels February 22, 2010. REUTERS/Yves Herman</p>
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