EU's Ashton to visit Israel for regional, Iran talks
Amid a diplomatic row over a plan to build homes in a disputed Jerusalem area, European Union ( EU) foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Wednesday for discussions with top officials, Xinhua reported.
Ashton will launch her visit with a morning meeting in Jerusalem with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, followed by meetings with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told Xinhua Monday.
Iran's presumed nuclear weapons program is expected to highlight the discussions, as well the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process and bolstering ties between Israel and the EU.
The visit will take place a week after the EU slammed an Israeli government plan, announced Thursday, to build some 800 housing units in Gilo, a hilltop settlement neighborhood in southeast Jerusalem located on the land Israel seized in the 1967 war.
"Settlements are illegal under international law and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible," Ashton's office said in a statement released on Friday.
The statement further noted that the EU "has repeatedly urged the government of Israel to immediately end all settlement activities in the West Bank, including in east Jerusalem, in line with its obligations under the road map."
On Sunday, Netanyahu brazenly responded to the condemnation, telling his cabinet that Israel will not place any limitation on " construction in its capital."
"In the same way, building goes on in London, Paris, Washington or Moscow. Israel is building in Jerusalem. We have a connection no less ancient and powerful to our capital," the prime minister said in a statement.
Ashton, who will arrive in Israel from Jordan, will meet senior Palestinian officials in Ramallah on Thursday and is scheduled to depart the region the following day.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, accompanied by a group of senior ministers, will land in Israel for a one-day visit to bolster already-strong bilateral ties, officials here said.
Monti's entourage will include his defense, foreign affairs, finance, justice, education and culture ministers, who will sign cooperation agreements with their Israeli counterparts, the Foreign Ministry said.