Eye on the Middle East Sep/Oct 2012

Have you ever heard the expression “the elephant in the room”? It was used first in a 1959 New York Times article about school finance that pointed out how ignoring the big problem is a problem.

A poster child for ignoring the elephant in the room is British Labor politician Catherine Ashton. As the European Union’s top foreign policy official, she is responsible for coordinating common foreign security policy. That position requires a thorough understanding of the history and issues confronting the deeply troubled neighborhood of the Middle East.

Speaking at the European Parliament’s plenary session in June, Ashton demonstrated her blind eye to the elephant by claiming Israel’s expansion in Judea and Samaria (West Bank) is the most “urgent” problem in the Middle East.

The EU’s top foreign policy official obviously believes building houses in the disputed territories is of greater concern than Syria’s slaughter of more than 14,000 people or the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt, which jeopardizes the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 33 years.

Does she really think building houses poses more of a threat than Hamas rockets fired daily into Israel from Gaza and the subsequent response Israel is forced to make? Is housing construction more threatening to peace than the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a position that violates the basic tenets of international negotiations?

While Catherine Ashton focuses on Israeli housing, the elephant in the room is the Iranian threat of nuclear capability. Former White House official Dennis Ross said the “potential for nuclear war goes up dramatically” if Iran becomes nuclear capable.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Iranian nuclear challenge “represents a ‘hinge of history’” and added that Western civilization will fall if Iran develops nuclear weapons. Iran has vowed to destroy Israel and is behind the Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist operations in Gaza and southern Lebanon. It also supports Syrian President Bashar Assad, who depends on Iran for survival.

Yet Ashton says the settlements need the most attention. She sees Israel as the world’s major problem. In her first official speech after her 2009 appointment, she labeled East Jerusalem “occupied territory” and demanded Israel immediately lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip. In February 2010, after Netanyahu implemented a 10-month building moratorium to achieve a “historic peace agreement” within a year, Ashton acknowledged it as only a “first step.”

When a terrorist shot and killed three students at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, in March, Ashton delivered a speech comparing the shooting to suffering children in Gaza. Only after Israeli leaders expressed outrage did the EU correct the transcript.

When PA President Mahmoud Abbas attended a ceremony honoring the remains of 91 Palestinian suicide bombers as “killed in action,” she was silent. When the PA minister of Social Affairs called for the PA and Hamas to focus efforts on the destruction of Israel and the “liberation of Palestine,” she was silent. Evidently building homes for families is far more threatening.

Ashton was anything but silent in the spring when she emerged from a meeting with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. Iran had stalled a formal meeting for more than 18 months while working toward nuclear capability. Instead of criticizing the Iranians, Ashton and her staff seemed excited merely to be in their presence. “The vibe,” she said, “was ‘wow, they are engaging….We know what the principles are.’”

If EU leaders are not careful, the elephant they ignore may eventually step on them.

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