WASHINGTON – US president-elect Barack Obama vowed to take swift action on the Middle East peace process and Iran's nuclear ambitions but played for time to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.
In an interview with ABC's "This Week" program broadcast Sunday, Obama defended his reluctance to speak out on Israel's bloody offensive in the Gaza Strip before he succeeds President George W. Bush on January 20.
But while he promised rapid efforts on the peace process and diplomatic engagement with Iran, Obama said it would be a "challenge" to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in his first 100 days in office.
Obama said he was building a diplomatic team so that "on day one, we have the best possible people who are going to be immediately engaged in the Middle East peace process as a whole."
The team would "be engaging with all of the actors there" so that "both Israelis and Palestinians can meet their aspirations," Obama said.
Until then, he said again that he would leave the Bush administration to speak on foreign policy but indicated some continuity to the peace process.
"I think that if you look not just at the Bush administration, but also what happened under the (Bill) Clinton administration, you are seeing the general outlines of an approach," Obama said in the interview taped Saturday.
Israel indicated for the first time Sunday that an end was in sight to its war on the Palestinian group Hamas, amid some of the heaviest clashes of an offensive that has killed nearly 900 people in the Gaza Strip.
Asked about Arab criticism of his relative silence on the bloodshed, Obama said "when you see civilians, whether Palestinian or Israeli, harmed, under hardship, it's heartbreaking."
"And obviously what that does is it makes me much more determined to try to break a deadlock that has gone on for decades now."
Under the Bush administration, the United States has been accused by the Palestinians of siding uncritically with Israel to the detriment of the peace process overall.
Obama stood by his words of July, during a visit to Israel, when he had 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."
Asked by ABC if he would repeat the remark in Israel now, he said: "I think that's a basic principle of any country is that they've got to protect their citizens."
Obama meanwhile took note of a warning from former US defense secretary William Perry Thursday that he would likely face a "serious crisis" over Iran's nuclear ambitions in his first year in office.
"I think that Iran is going to be one of our biggest challenges," the president-elect said, warning a nuclear-armed Iran "could potentially trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East."
Obama promised "a new emphasis on respect and a new emphasis on being willing to talk, but also a clarity about what our bottom lines are."
"And we are in preparations for that. We anticipate that we're going to have to move swiftly in that area."
The Islamic republic has defied UN sanctions designed to halt its enrichment of uranium, insisting that its nuclear program is for civilian energy needs and has no military bent.
"And we are going to have to take a new approach. And I've outlined my belief that engagement is the place to start," Obama said.
"That the international community is going to be taking cues from us in how we want to approach Iran."
When asked about his promise to close the controversial prison at Guantanamo Bay, which still holds some 250 "war on terror" suspects, Obama said: "It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize.
He said his legal and national security advisers were working out the best approach. But Obama added emphatically that the prison at the US naval base would be closed.
"I don't want to be ambiguous about this," he said.
"We are going to close Guantanamo and we are going to make sure that the procedures we set up are ones that abide by our constitution," he said, vowing also that his administration would "not torture" terror suspects.
Obama did not rule out prosecutions of Bush administration officials for civil liberties abuses, but said he was more focused on "doing the right thing" moving forward.
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