Obama, Abbas exchange views on peace march, Gaza as progress expected

Abu Mazen tells U.S. President Obama Gaza blockade lifting would be major step for success of peace efforts

Mubarak tells Biden peaceful, fair solution has to be reached quickly, blockade lifted

Egypt urges Arabs to stick to peace initiative

NATO declines to downgrade level of relations with Israel

U.S. President Barack Obama was hosting Palestinian National Authority (PNA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday morning in the White House, in a bid to push the Palestinian leader to speed up the peace process with Israel.

After a personal meeting in the Oval Office, Obama and Abbas will hold a bilateral meeting joined by senior officials from both sides.

"The President looks forward to reviewing with President Abbas the progress so far in Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks, and how the United States can work with the parties to transition to direct talks," said the White House in an earlier statement.

The two leaders are expected to discuss "continuing effort to work cooperatively to develop the institutions that can advance the aspirations of the Palestinian people, and support the establishment of a Palestinian state," said the White House statement.

However, a new scenario for the Obama-Abbas meeting would be Israel's commando raid on an international aid flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip, which is under the de facto control by the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, a major rival for Abbas's Fatah party.

Nine pro-Palestinian activists, eight of them Turkish citizens, were killed in the raid on May 31. The international community has slammed for using excessive force, while the Israeli government insists that its soldiers acted just in self-defense when they were attacked on board by the activists.

After the incident, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shortened visit to Canada and canceled his scheduled trip to Washington on June 1 for meeting with President Obama in the White House.

Under the pressure mounted by the Obama administration, the Israeli government and the PNA resumed their talks early this month, although in an indirect way mediated by U.S. special envoy George Mitchell, ending a 17-month-long stalemate.

Obama has urged both sides to resume direct talks in order to reach a permanent agreement that leads to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. But the two sides refused the call because of dispute over Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Chairman Abbas insists that the talks shall not resume until the Israeli government totally freezes the Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, while the Israeli side blames Abbas of setting condition for resuming the talks and vows to ensure the "natural growth" of the Jewish settlements.

At least 450,000 Israelis live in more than 100 settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, US Vice President Joe Biden met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Monday as tensions mounted in the Middle East over a deadly Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid convoy.

Biden arrived in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday, accompanied by senior White House staff and National Security officials.

The talks lasted about 90 minutes, during which they discussed "a full range of bilateral and regional issues,” a US embassy spokesman told AFP.

Biden's visit came after a botched naval operation by US ally Israel last week which killed nine people on board an aid ship headed for Gaza and threatened to stall US-brokered proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Turkish-owned boat was part of a six-ship flotilla trying to break the four-year-old blockade Israel imposed on the impoverished Gaza Strip. Another aid boat, the Irish-owned Rachel Corrie, was intercepted on Saturday.

On Sunday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit said Israel should be "ashamed of itself" for the deadly raid but insisted the proximity talks would not be affected.

He said indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians were "ongoing" and warned suspending them would hamper Palestinian hopes of statehood.

"If anyone speaks of ending these contacts, he is preventing the Palestinians from achieving their aspirations through political action," Abul-Gheit said.

Palestinian President Abbas headed to Turkey on Sunday on his way to Washington for talks with US President Barack Obama on the indirect peace negotiations -- talks which he says are already running into trouble.

"We are going through difficult talks with the Israelis. There are lots of obstacles," Abbas told a group of young Palestinians on Friday.

Despite a global outcry over the Israeli commando assault, the White House has refused to explicitly single out Israel for blame.

Biden said on Wednesday that Israel has the right to protect its security by boarding ships heading for Gaza, but added the United States would continue to press Israel to improve living conditions for Palestinians.

"I think Israel has an absolute right to deal with its security interest," Biden said in an interview broadcast by PBS television.

"The one thing we have to do is not forget the plight of these Palestinians there... they're in bad shape."

On Tuesday, in the wake of the Israeli assault, Mubarak ordered the indefinite opening of Egypt's Rafah border crossing -- the only gateway to Gaza that bypasses Israel.

The impoverished Gaza Strip has been under a crippling blockade since militants based in the territory captured a soldier in a deadly cross-border raid in 2006.

Israel tightened its grip after the Islamist Hamas movement seized control of Gaza the following year.

Egypt helped enforce the blockade by building an underground barrier to block smuggling tunnels linking Gaza and Egypt, on which Palestinians rely for many basic goods, but which are also used by Hamas to bring in weapons.

Mubarak's surprise move to open the border has allowed some additional aid into Gaza, but only a restricted category of Palestinians such as those seeking treatment or study abroad are permitted to cross.

Egypt, once a key broker between Israel and the Palestinians, has seen its role as mediator decrease but it remains a vital ally to the United States in the region, concentrating in recent months on sponsoring talks between the rival Palestinian factions.

Biden was scheduled to visit Egypt in March, but the trip was cancelled after Mubarak was hospitalized.

His visit to Egypt comes as part of an African tour which will also take him to Kenya and South Africa, where he will represent the United States at the World Cup opening ceremony.

Abul-Gheit on Sunday opposed calls for Arab countries to withdraw from a 2002 Arab Peace Initiative with Israel, saying that do so that would mean there would be no Arab position on the region's peace process.

Abul-Gheit said that the initiative reflects the "Arab stance towards the Middle East conflict" and Arabs' "vision for peace in the region."

"If we withdraw it, what are the new Arab stances that we will discuss? Thus, those who call for withdrawing the initiative do not see the consequences of the lack of an Arab stance," Abul-Gheit said.

His statements come days after Kuwaitis and Bahrainis called on their governments to withdraw their support for the eight-year-old initiative, which attempts to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories.

Bahraini protesters and Kuwaiti members of parliament made their demand after Israel's attack on a fleet of boats trying to bring aid to the Gaza Strip Monday. Israel's raid left nine people dead and dozens injured.

A top Turkish official on Wednesday proposed a NATO naval mission to lift the Israeli blockade of the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

"NATO should send a fleet to put an end to the embargo," Turkey's chief negotiator with the European Union, Egemen Bagis told reporters during a trip to Brussels.

"It's just an idea," he added, stressing that he was talking in a personal capacity.

Bagis said that UN or EU forces could also verify goods destined for Gaza to allay Israel's fears of shipments of arms and other materials which could be used against the Jewish state.

However the Turkish official said that imposing sanctions against Israel was not a solution.

Questioned on the differences between Turkey and the EU to the Israel raid on an aid flotilla bound for Gaza last week, which left nine people dead, Turks, Bagis said the first comments by EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton had been "a joke."

Ashton originally called for Israel to investigate the raid, before the EU moved to seek an impartial enquiry. "You don't ask an attacker to open an enquiry about his own attack," Bagis said.

Ankara welcomed the later response in which Ashton was more critical.

The raid on the flotilla have badly hit the already fraught ties between Israel and Turkey, which were formerly very strong.

Turkey recalled its ambassador to Israel and scrapped joint military drills, saying economic and defense ties with Israel would be reduced to a "minimum level."

Future relations lie in Israel's hands, Bagis asserted, insisting that his country "naturally deserves" an apology.