Obama urges Netanyahu to get facts on Gaza ship raid

The White House's cautious response, which contrasted with an outcry against Israel's actions in Europe and the Muslim world, reflected a difficult balancing act for Obama.

He faces international pressure to join condemnation of Israel but must also be mindful that the Jewish state, a close U.S. ally, is popular with American lawmakers and voters. At the same time, fledgling U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts are at risk of collapse.

"The president expressed deep regret at the loss of life in today's incident, and concern for the wounded," the White House said in a summary of Obama's phone call with Netanyahu hours after Israeli marines stormed a Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza and at least nine pro-Palestinian activists were killed.

"The president also expressed the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances around this morning's tragic events as soon as possible," it said.

Obama, ending a long holiday weekend in Chicago, also told Netanyahu he understood his decision to cancel their White House talks set for Tuesday and return home from a visit to Canada, to deal with the incident. They agreed to reschedule a meeting soon, the White House said.

Israel's storming of the aid ship unleashed international outrage over the bloody end to a bid by human rights campaigners to break an Israeli blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The U.N. Security Council convened an emergency session on Monday.

Netanyahu said Israeli forces had been attacked during the boarding and had to defend themselves. In addition to the activists killed, seven troops and 20 protesters were injured, the Israeli military said.

Talks Meant to Give Nudge

"At this point, It is unclear what happened and there must be a thorough investigation," U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry said. "This unfortunate incident underscores the necessity of resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians."

Turkey's U.S. ambassador, Namik Tan, pressed for a tougher line with Israel. "We would expect our American friends to ... be strongly condemning the Israeli action. So far we haven't heard that," he told Reuters. "The reaction was not strong enough as we would have expected from our American allies."

He said the Israeli raid would top the agenda when Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu meets U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on Tuesday.

Obama had hoped to use his talks with Netanyahu to give a nudge to indirect U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and ease any lingering U.S.-Israeli strains over Jewish settlement construction on occupied land.

Getting long-stalled negotiations back under way marked Obama's biggest achievement in Middle East diplomacy since taking office last year pledging to make it a high priority.

It is also part of his outreach to the Muslim world, where Obama has sought to counter perceptions of U.S. bias in favor of Israel, especially under his predecessor George W. Bush.

But there has been little or no progress since talks started this month, and with the Gaza flotilla incident, prospects even for keeping the process alive look bleak. Obama will have a chance to try when he hosts Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who called the raid a "massacre," on June 9.

Potential fallout from the incident poses another big headache for Obama, who is already struggling with a massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill and high unemployment at home and nuclear standoffs with North Korea and Iran abroad.

[Source: By Matt Spetalnick, Reuters, Washington, 31May10]

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