Government officials in Jerusalem harshly criticized the new European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, for her scathing remarks about the "Israeli occupation" in her maiden speech.

The British stateswoman told the members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg that, in the EU's view, "East Jerusalem is occupied territory, together with the West Bank."

Ashton demanded that Israel immediately lift its blockade on the Gaza Strip, and reiterated that the union opposes the existence of the West Bank separation fence, along with evictions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem.

The government officials in Jerusalem said they were surprised, dissatisfied and concerned that such a senior figure had expressed criticism before visiting Israel and learning the facts. They said the remarks cast a pall over relations with the European Union, and that they were particularly angry that she had not welcomed the settlement construction freeze, as had her European colleagues.

Ashton defined Israel's partial freeze of West Bank settlement construction as a "first step," as opposed to the warmer description of the move by EU foreign ministers, who last week took "positive note" of it.

Following her comments, a number of MEPs from the liberal side of the house called for punitive measures against Israel, including the suspension of the EU's Association Agreement with Israel. Irish center-left member Proinsias De Rossa, who visited the West Bank last week, called Israel's treatment of Palestinians a form of "apartheid."

This time it was neither the Swedish president who pushed the EU toward an anti-Israel resolution, nor a judge in Britain who issued an arrest warrant against an Israeli foreign minister. Criticism of Israel has become the language of choice in European discourse.

Former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk told Haaretz in an interview that statements by figures like MK Benny Begin (Likud), according to which settlement construction will continue despite the current freeze, are damaging to Israel's interests. Indyk said these comments, as well as the decision to pump funds into isolated settlements, strengthen the impression that the declaration of the freeze is not worth the paper it is written on. The interview with Indyk is to be published on Sunday.