Washington (AP) - With tensions newly heightened in the Middle East, President Barack Obama and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas were set to discuss Israel's blockade of Gaza and the humanitarian and economic hardship facing the people there.
Obama and Abbas were to confer in the Oval Office on Wednesday during a meeting that was put on the president's schedule before Israel's May 31 raid on a flotilla hoping to break the blockade. Nine men in the flotilla were killed, including eight Turks and a Turkish American.
Israel says its soldiers opened fire only after they were set upon by a mob of pro-Palestinian activists. The activists and their supporters blame Israel, saying its commandos began shooting unnecessarily.
Turkey has led the world in condemning the raid and calling for an international investigation into the operation Israel carried out a day before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to see Obama at the White House. Netanyahu canceled the meeting.
Obama did not join the international condemnation of Israel, a close U.S. ally. He expressed deep regret over the killings and said he wanted to learn all the facts leading up to the incident as soon as possible.
Obama also did not join calls for an end to the three-year-old blockade, which Israel says is needed to keep weapons out of the hands of Gaza's Hamas rulers. Critics say the blockade has choked off contact with the outside world for Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians.
The White House said Obama and Abbas will discuss strategies for improving conditions for the people of Gaza, including U.S. support for specific projects to promote economic development.
They also will review progress toward beginning direct peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Though indirect talks between the two sides are under way, the United States has been pushing to restart direct peace negotiations. But progress toward the goal has been slow and now appears to have been complicated by the deadly May 31 confrontation.
On Monday, Israel's naval forces shot and killed four men in wet suits off the Gaza coast. The militant group Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades said the men were members of its marine unit training for a mission. The Israeli military said the men were preparing for an attack on Israel.
Netanyahu and Obama agreed to reschedule their meeting, though a new date has not been announced. They were to continue trying to smooth over a bumpy patch in relations between their countries and discuss moving toward direct peace talks with the Palestinians.
U.S.-Israeli relations were tested earlier this year when Israel announced plans for additional settlements in a part of Jerusalem considered by Palestinians as a potential capital of a new Palestinian state. The announcement came as Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel preparing for dinner with Netanyahu, in an incident that turned out to be a major embarrassment for the Israeli leader.
The Palestinians have refused to sit down with Netanyahu until he agrees to freeze all Jewish housing construction in areas they want for an independent state, but Israel recently said it has no intention of halting construction in east Jerusalem.
Obama and Abbas were to confer in the Oval Office on Wednesday -- a meeting that was put on the president's schedule before Israel's May 31 raid on a flotilla hoping to break the Gaza blockade.