Obama U.N. agenda aims to lower Mideast tensions
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Facing a U.N. showdown over Palestinian statehood, President Barack Obama plans talks with feuding Israeli and Turkish leaders and renewed efforts to revive Middle East peace talks in a diplomatic push next week to ease rising regional tensions.
Obama will meet Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu separately on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, the White House said on Friday.
The president will urge the two U.S. allies to heal a damaging diplomatic split over the 2010 killing of Turkish activists in a Gaza-bound aid convoy, a crisis that has underscored Israel's growing isolation in the region.
"We have encouraged Israel and Turkey, two close friends of the United States, to work to bridge their differences, so we'll have an opportunity to discuss those issues," White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters at a briefing previewing Obama's visit set to begin late Monday.
This will come against the backdrop of a Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition of statehood at the United Nations next week, despite fierce Israeli opposition and a U.S. threat to veto any such move in Security Council.
The meeting with Netanyahu, who has had a strained relationship with Obama, will focus primarily on how to get long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks back on track, Rhodes said. The encounter is expected Tuesday or Wednesday.
It will be the first chance for them to try to mend fences face-to-face since May when they clashed in an Oval Office meeting over Obama's insistence that negotiations on Palestinian statehood should start on the basis of Israel's prewar 1967 borders.
Rhodes said there were no plans for Obama to sit down with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in New York, though he did not rule out the possibility.
Abbas vowed in the West Bank city of Ramallah to go to the United Nations to request "our legitimate right" and seek full membership, a move that U.S. officials worry could further destabilize a region already in political upheaval.
A flurry of last-ditch diplomacy by U.S. and European Union envoys has so far failed to avert the U.N. showdown, which would be a diplomatic rebuke to Washington.
The Palestinian initiative reflects disillusionment over Obama's failure to advance the peace process after declaring it a high priority when he took office in 2008.
Obama brokered a relaunch of direct peace talks last September but negotiations quickly collapsed in a dispute over Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank.
Rhodes said Obama would push the two sides to find ways to get back to the negotiating table when he addresses world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday.
Obama will also use his speech to urge Israel and two other close U.S. allies in the region, Turkey and Egypt, to "move forward with repairing their relations," Rhodes said.
Relations between Egypt and Israel, strained since the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak in February, were plunged into crisis last Saturday when protesters in Cairo stormed the Israeli embassy, forcing diplomats to flee the country.
Obama is due to meet Erdogan on Tuesday. Washington has become increasingly concerned after Turkey reacted angrily this month to Netanyahu's refusal to apologize for an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla that killed nine Turkish citizens in May 2010.
Erdogan's government has expelled Israel's envoy, frozen military cooperation and warned that the Turkish navy could escort future aid flotillas -- raising the prospect of confrontation between NATO-member Turkey and the Jewish state.
The two countries previously had worked closely together on military cooperation and intelligence sharing, as both had sought reliable partners in a volatile neighborhood.
Middle East peacemaking will also be on the agenda when Obama holds bilateral talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday.
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