CATHERINE Ashton, the European Union's Foreign Minister under the Lisbon Treaty has taken a lot of criticism for her alleged “low-key” start to this new job since she was appointed to it in December. However, yesterday's news that she will pay a visit to Gaza next week is a welcome sign that she is ready to take bold initiatives. The visit has been agreed with Israel; its main purpose is to undertake a “close inspection of humanitarian aid work” in Gaza and therefore the blockades which Israel has operated for access to Gaza will come under her review. She has also indicated that she will need to speak with leaders of Hamas which governs Gaza and in doing so she will probably the first senior Western official to do so publicly.

Lady Ashton's visit has raised criticism in Israel as being “unnecessary and unhelpful”. For her part she has spoken out in the past about Israel's “colonisation” of West Bank land which it occupies unlawfully. It is unlikely that Ashton would undertake this visit -- her first independent mission since she began her work in Brussels -- unless she saw it as a stepping stone to a better-defined EU policy towards the Israel-Palestinian issue. Although a new round of American-sponsored talks between the two sides is due to start this week the reality is that negotiations over this dispute should not be the exclusive preserve of Washington. A new perspective is needed and the EU could well provide it.