Claire Soares: Ashton hoping Middle East trip will silence her critics

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The Independent Online

Ever since Baroness Cathy Ashton was appointed "Europe's Foreign Minister", she has been struggling to assert her authority. Some might say her first trip to the Middle East, could not have come at a worse time. For if America is having problems being heard in Israel right now – with the Netanyahu government so publicly snubbing the US Vice President – what leverage can the European Union hope to have, particularly via an emissary who has been mercilessly skewered on home turf?

A mocking headline in French daily, Libération, pretty much sums up Ashton's first three months on the job, "Lady Who?". She has been attacked for not visiting Haiti to wave the EU flag straight after the devastating earthquake, for skipping an EU defence ministers' meeting in Spain, and for not getting up to speed quickly enough on the major foreign policy portfolios.

This week's diplomatic mission is her highest profile to date. After a major speech in Cairo today, come stops in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. She is due in Israel on Wednesday. "I am going to the region with a clear message to encourage all actors to engage in talks that lead us to a comprehensive regional peace," she said yesterday.

That seems even more remote a possibility following Israel's announcement of new settlement homes in the middle of Joe Biden's visit and after the Palestinians had agreed to indirect talks.

Yet paradoxically, the US-Israeli spat might give Ashton cover, on a personal level, in the event of any unforseen row.

A mooted visit to Gaza might also silence those who accuse her of shirking the tough trips. Ashton has said she wants to visit the blockaded strip where the EU supplies the bulk of humanitarian aid. The Israelis, keen to win an upgrade in trade relations with the EU, have granted rare permission.

However, there will be no doubt be trepidation in the Ashton camp. For if she puts a foot wrong, it simply hand her already-vocal critics more ammunition.