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A week before his inauguration, the President-elect offers new clues on Gaza, Gitmo, and Iran
WASHINGTON, D.C. — If President-elect Barack Obama has any concerns that Israel's pounding airstrikes on Palestinians in Gaza are a disproportionate response to the dangers faced by Israel as a nation, he chose again not to voice them.
"A basic principle in any country is that they've got to protect their citizens," Obama told host George Stephanopoulos on the ABC News Sunday show "This Week."
Obama stuck by the statement he made on a trip to Israel last July, when he stood in a town that had suffered repeated shelling by Palestinian Hamas' rockets and said, "If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that."
"I would expect Israelis to do the same thing," Obama said in a television sound bite that has been aired repeatedly in Israel and across the Arab world and is largely seen as his definitive statement on the current crisis even though it was videotaped months ago before he was elected president.
The disproportionate number of Palestinains who have been killed and wounded, the lethality of Israel's offensive operation, and the high percentage of civilian casualties suffered by the Palestinians in the latest round of warfare has not changed Obama's public reaction.
In Gaza, 800 people have been killed by pounding Israeli airstrikes, including hundreds of civilians, according to UN officials on the ground.
Ten Israeli soldiers have been killed in action and four Israeli civilians have been killed by Hamas rockets in the two weeks since the offensive began.
The president-elect reminded viewers that he has not taken office yet.
"We cannot have two administrations at the same time simultaneously sending signals in a volatile situation," Obama told ABC News on Jan. 11.
But then Stephanopoulos read a question from a viewer: "Why is Obama remaining silent on the Gaza crisis when so many innocent people are being killed?"
Obama equated the costs on both sides.
"When you see civilians, whether Palestinian or Israeli, harmed, under hardship, it's heartbreaking," he said.
Obama said the fresh round of fighting "makes me much more determined to try to break a deadlock" in the region. But when offered an opportunity to explain whether he favored the chance to build on the current two-state peace process, or to make a clean break and draw the lines on a new agreement, the incoming president promised continuity.
"If you look not just at the Bush administration, but also what happened under the Clinton administration, you are seeing the general outlines of an approach," Obama said. It is not the strategy, but "the politics of it are hard — and the reason it's so important for the United States to be engaged and involved immediately."
On the other hand, Obama vowed "a new approach" with Iran. "Engagement is the place to start," he said. The U.S. will lead the world and offer Iran "a new emphasis on respect and a new emphasis on being willing to talk" with "clarity about what our bottom lines are." He promised that his administration would move "swiftly" in making its new approach to the Iranians.
Obama's appearance was taped, and so he was not asked about David Sanger's report in The New York Times on Sunday. Sanger's story revealed that President Bush had rebuffed Israel's request that the United States cooperate in an Israeli air attack on Iran's nuclear research facilities.
Obama revived his campaign promise that "under my administration we will not torture" and suggested that the CIA should be able to operate with the same interrogation techniques — and limitations — used by the American military "that are squarely within the boundaries of rule of law."
A key part of his foreign policy and national security strategy, Obama said, will be an American attempt to take the moral high ground. "We will send a message to the world that we are serious about our values."
But he cautioned viewers that, though he will keep his vow to close the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo, he may not be able to do so within the 100-day timeframe he had proposed because,"it is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize."
"You have a bunch of folks that have been detained, many of whom who may be very dangerous who have not been put on trial or have not gone through some adjudication. And some of the evidence against them may be tainted even though it's true," he said.
His advisers are looking for ways to honor American values and legal principles, Obama added, but "in a way that doesn't result in releasing people who are intent on blowing us up."