Abbas reviews Palestinian issue, peace march with Russian president

Palestinian president says ready to visit Gaza

Netanyahu goes back on offer for new peace initiative

Israel ups military escalations against Gaza to thwart inter-Palestinian reconciliation attempts

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told visiting Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday that he was concerned about the fate of the Middle East peace process given the current turmoil in the region.

The Russian leader told Abbas he still supported an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital, the message he took with him on a visit to the West Bank town of Jericho in January.

But he expressed worry that the current violence in Libya and other countries around the region could damage the fragile peace talks.

"Some time has passed since my visit to the Palestinian territories and unfortunately, the situation in the Middle East and North Africa has not improved," Medvedev told Abbas at his suburban Moscow residence.

"On the contrary, it has grown substantially more complex," he added. "I expect that despite the current difficulties, we will be able to overcome the current trend."

The meeting came just a day before the expected arrival in Moscow of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also under strong US pressure to resume open and productive dialogue with the Palestinians.

Russia has lost much of its influence in the Middle East since the Soviet era and has been watching the revolutions and social unrest sweeping the region with alarm.

Medvedev has voiced fears that the resulting power vacuum could lead to the rise of Islamists, potentially also destabilizing the situation along Russia's troubled southern periphery.

Sounding a more optimistic note, Abbas told Medvedev he was also tracking the developments to see how they would affect the peace process, adding that "if they lead us to democracy, this should only be supported and welcomed."

Besides being unable to move the Israeli peace process forward, Abbas has also been waging an uphill battle to end his secular Fatah group's split with the Gaza-based Hamas movement and form an interim government.

Abbas has said he is ready to go to Gaza for talks, and he repeated that message in Moscow.

"I hope that the Hamas leadership accepts my initiative," Abbas said.

The Palestinian president on Wednesday offered to go to the Gaza Strip for unity talks with his Hamas rivals, a day after Israel intercepted an arms shipment it said was sent by Iran to the Islamic militant group.

Mahmoud Abbas' gesture to Hamas suggests he has given up on reaching peace with Israel and will instead seek internal reconciliation at the risk of jeopardizing relations with the West. The U.S., Israel and EU consider Hamas a terror group.

Abbas has not visited Gaza since Hamas expelled his forces in a five-day civil war in 2007. Since then, his Western-backed Palestinian Authority has ruled only the West Bank. Repeated reconciliation efforts since then have failed.

Even with the best of intentions, it will be difficult for the sides to overcome their vast differences. Past reconciliation efforts have failed, with neither side eager to relinquish the power it has, and the bad blood from their 2007 violence remains.

Following parallel rallies in Gaza and the West Bank urging the rival Palestinian leaderships to reunite, Gaza's Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, invited Abbas to come try to mend ties. With peace talks with Israel at a standstill and pro-democracy uprisings taking place across the Middle East, Abbas complied.

"I declare that I am ready to go to Gaza to end the split and form a new government," Abbas said in a speech before senior members of his Fatah Party, referring to "this dark and dishonorable chapter of division."

Abbas' unity plan includes parliamentary and presidential elections within six months. Abbas told his Fatah allies that he would not seek re-election in that vote.

Despite the Hamas welcome to Abbas, its police forces lunged into a crowd of a few dozen activists on Wednesday and beat them with sticks. The previous day, Hamas police beat up demonstrators with batons, punched reporters and seized activists' mobile phones.

Bringing Hamas back into the Palestinian Authority could jeopardize the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual American and European aid the government depends on. That aid was withheld in the past when Hamas was part of the government because it refused to recognize Israel, renounce its violent campaign against the Jewish state or accept previous peace accords. There is no sign Hamas would be willing to do any of those things now, and violence continues.

A rocket from Gaza struck Israel early Wednesday, and Israeli hit back with an air strike that killed two militants and wounded four.

Israel said the massive shipment of weapons it captured from the "Victoria" ship also proves Hamas' violent intentions. Israel laid out an assortment of missiles and mortars at the Ashdod port in southern Israel alongside the ship its navy commandeered in international waters in the Mediterranean.

Israel said the ship was on its way from Syria with weapons meant for Hamas in Gaza.

Among the weapons on board were advanced anti-ship missiles Israel said could alter the region's balance of power by impeding its ability to enforce a naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

Military officials said Iran possessed the types of weapons found onboard. The military released images of instruction manuals in Farsi and said there were other clues that "explicitly" showed Iranian involvement.

"Every day, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist elements are making efforts to smuggle weapons into Lebanon and Gaza," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, after inspecting the haul.

"All those who question why Israel must stop ... and inspect ships en route to Gaza can find the answer right here in Ashdod," he said. "They were en route to terror organizations in Gaza but their ultimate target was the Israeli civilian population."

To get around its naval blockade, Israel says Hamas routinely has arms shipments delivered to Egypt, and then smuggled across the largely lawless Sinai peninsula into neighboring Gaza through a network of tunnels under the 9-mile (15-kilometer) border.

In two related developments, Turkey's government forced an Iranian cargo plane land in its territory to search for an alleged cargo of arms from Iran to Syria, and Egyptian forces seized five vehicles carrying weapons into the country from Sudan, apparently headed for Gaza. Egyptian officials said the trucks were carrying large quantities of mortars, rocket propelled grenades, rifles and explosives.

Netanyahu was leaving for Moscow on Wednesday as the Kremlin urged Israel and the Palestinians not to let the peace process fall victim to surging turmoil at home and in the region.

The Israeli prime minister was to arrive in Moscow the same day Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was wrapping up his own visit to Russia, but the two leaders were not scheduled to meet, officials said.

Following talks with Abbas on Tuesday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said he was concerned the violence in Libya and other countries around the region could damage the deadlocked peace talks.

"Some time has passed since my (January) visit to the Palestinian territories and unfortunately, the situation in the Middle East and North Africa has not improved," Medvedev said.

The Kremlin invited both leaders for talks just three weeks ahead of a key meeting of the Middle East diplomatic Quartet -- which groups the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations -- due to take place in Berlin on April 15.

It also comes as Israel and the Palestinian militants in Gaza engaged in an increasingly deadly bout of tit-for-tat violence, which on Wednesday saw two Grad rockets slamming into the southern city of Beersheba.

A day earlier, Israeli forces killed eight Gazans, including two minors and four militants, in attacks aimed at stamping out rocket fire.

The killings follow days of rising cross-border violence, which has ramped up tensions between Israel and Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers and once again raised fears of a large-scale Israeli military invasion.

World powers, including Russia, have been seeking ways to coax both parties back to the negotiating table, but the events of the last week make the prospects of a large-scale confrontation look far more likely than a return to peace talks.

Direct negotiations ran aground late last year in an intractable dispute about Jewish settlements, with the Palestinians saying they will not talk while Israel builds on land they want for a future state.

A day before his departure, Netanyahu said the two sides were further apart than ever, and blamed the Palestinians for the impasse.

However, Israeli officials said it was important to talk to Moscow about a range of regional issues.

"They are likely to discuss regional issues, the greater Middle East is going through a period of great change and we would like to exchange assessments with Moscow," a senior official said on condition of anonymity.

Netanyahu was likely to raise the issue of Iran's nuclear program and Russian arms sales to the region, particularly a recent pledge to sell advanced cruise missiles to Syria.

Israel, which is still technically at war with Syria and fears the regime's close ties with Iran, suspects the shipment of Russian anti-ship Yakhont missiles is ultimately destined to reach Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.

This is Netanyahu's second official trip to Moscow since taking office in 2009, although he did conduct a secret visit to the Russian capital in September of that year which highlighted the role Russia plays in Israel's attempts to scotch Iran's nuclear drive.

During the 24-hour visit, Netanyahu will meet Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Netanyahu was to have met with Medvedev in January on a planned visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, but the Russian leader had to cancel the Israeli leg of the trip following a strike by foreign ministry diplomats.

Officials said Netanyahu was likely to invite Medvedev back to Israel to make up for the mishap.

As a goodwill gesture ahead of the trip, Israel on Monday began vacating a 19th century building in central Jerusalem, known as Sergei's Courtyard.

The building was initially constructed for Russian pilgrims but it was taken over by the British Mandate authorities, then passed on to Israel. Ownership of the structure will now be transferred to Moscow.