Analysis: Baroness Ashton fails first big Arab test

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, March 18, 2010
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In her first real test as Europe's new foreign policy chief, Baroness Ashton delivered a key policy speech to the Arab League in Cairo on Tuesday. As it turns out, she flunked the test and returned the EU - after a brief hiatus of relatively friendly relations with Israel - to where it has traditionally been: a friend and a major sponsor of Palestinian intransigence and Arab complicity in the lack of progress in regional peace.

The speech contained two minor messages and one major theme: the importance of the relationship between Europe and the Arab world; the danger of Iran's nuclear programme; and the importance and urgency of the peace process.

Her reference to "a common history" and "a common destiny" that Europe and the Arab world supposedly share was devoid of any mention of freedom, democracy and human rights. Baronness Ashton's speech was thus an exercise in historical revisionism. She reminded her audience of a mythical time of idyllic friendship that never existed in order not to remind them of their present shortcomings: authoritarianism, social and economic injustice, human rights abuses, oppression of religious and ethnic minorities, gender apartheid, fomenting of hatred and the condoning of terrorism, among other things.

By ignoring the present and subverting the past, Baroness Ashton has regrettably confirmed EU priorities in the region - work with tyrants, condone their errors and horrors, ignore the regional context, and pressure Israel.

Baroness Ashton then spent three entire paragraphs on Iran's nuclear programme. First, she heaped praise on Iran's ancient civilisation; second, she omitted any mention of Iran's present barbarism; and third, she linked Europe's current dual track policy approach - negotiations and sanctions to change the regime's behaviour - to a "Nuclear Free Middle East", thereby winking and nodding to the region's rulers that Israel too is in the dock.

But all this was just an introduction to her main themes - the centrality of the Palestinian question to regional challenges, the urgency of finding a solution, the lack of trust she has in Israeli PM Netanyahu and the excess amount of confidence she has in the Palestinian leadership.

No one denies that the persistence of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a problem that deserves solution; but to claim that it is the proverbial Gordian knot - the mother of all troubles - is naïve. Baroness Ashton cannot possibly believe that what is currently happening in Yemen is a byproduct of Palestinian-Israeli disputes; that piracy off the coast of Somalia would be called off at the announcement of a historic compromise; that al-Qaeda would lay down its weapons and that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood would stop calling President Mubarak "Pharaoh" as soon as the Palestinian flag flies over the Noble Sanctuary.

She must know. And so she says what she says because she is pandering to an audience of Arab autocrats.

This is also the reason why Baroness Ashton mercilessly lashes out at Israel for much of the remainder of her speech; but the share of responsibility the Palestinians get in her list of no-no's comes down to a gentle reminder to be more fraternal to one another.

This may be a sure ticket to warm welcomes in Cairo - but by ignoring the regional context, giving a free pass to Arab tyrants, and spending most of her time re-writing Arab history so as to blame Israel for the present, Baroness Ashton has ensured that Europe's voice will return to its traditional role: rhetorical encumbrance, substantial irrelevance.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies

Last updated: 4:40pm, March 18 2010