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Obama administration concerned about Gaza incident

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An Israeli naval ship sails into the port of Ashdod, Israel, Monday.

An Israeli naval ship sails into the port of Ashdod, Israel, Monday.

Ariel Schalit, Associated Press

CHICAGO — President Barack Obama voiced "deep regret" over Monday's deadly Israeli commando raids, and the White House said he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed by phone to reschedule White House talks "at the first opportunity."

In a statement issued by presidential aides in Chicago, where Obama and his family have been spending the Memorial Day weekend, the president was said to have "expressed the importance of learning all the facts and circumstances" surrounding the incident involving aid ships seeking access to the blockaded Gaza Strip.

"He said he understood the prime minister's decision to return immediately to Israel to deal with today's events," the statement said. Netanyahu had been scheduled to meet with Obama Tuesday at the White House.

At the State Department, spokesman P.J. Crowley said, "We support expanding the flow of goods to the people of Gaza. But this must be done in a spirit of cooperation, not confrontation."

The United States has been trying to restart direct peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, but progress toward this achievement has lagged severely in recent months. At least nine people were killed and dozens wounded in the incident Monday.

The raid brought heightened attention to Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, imposed after the Palestinian militant group Hamas seized control of the tiny Mediterranean territory in 2007. The blockade — along with Israel's fierce offensive against Gaza in the winter of 2008-2009 to stop Hamas rocket fire — has fueled anti-Israeli sentiment around the Arab world.

Obama, who has been pushing to reinvigorate the peace process, also has a meeting scheduled here June 9 with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

In a statement last week, the White House said that Obama and Abbas planned to discuss the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks and ways the U.S. can work with both parties to move into direct talks. They also will discuss U.S. efforts to support the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Obama and fellow Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel discussed the need for a renewed Middle East peace process earlier this month during a private lunch at the White House.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Wiesel said the meeting was a "good kosher lunch" between friends. But he said the conversation did turn serious, as the two Nobel Peace Prize winners discussed the administration's attempts to break the deadlock in the Israel-Palestinian peace talks.

Obama's meeting with Wiesel, a strong supporter of Israel, comes during a period of strained relations between the U.S. and Israel. The author said he believes tensions between the two countries are lessening.

Wiesel survived the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Last June, when Obama visited Germany, Wiesel accompanied the president on a tour of Buchenwald.

Relations between the two countries were tested when Israel announced plans for additional settlements in a part of Jerusalem that Palestinians consider as the likely capital of a new Palestinian state. The announcement came as Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, were preparing to have dinner with Netanyahu, in an incident that turned out to be an embarrassment for the Israeli leader.