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President-elect Barack Obama said in remarks broadcast on Sunday that he would begin the search for Middle East peace immediately on becoming leader, adding that the Gaza conflict only underscored his determination to become involved early.

During his presidential campaign, Obama said both President George W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton waited too long to work vigorously to broker a peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

On the ABC News show "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," Obama said it would be important to begin the effort early.

"The reason it's so important for the United States to be engaged and involved immediately, not waiting until the end of their term, is because working through the politics of this requires a third party that everybody has confidence [in], wants to see a fair and just outcome," he said.

Obama, who takes over from President George W. Bush on Jan. 20, has refused to make any lengthy comments on the violence in Gaza, where more than 800 Palestinians have been killed in the 16-day Israeli offensive to suppress rocket fire against its citizens by the militant group Hamas. Thirteen Israelis have been killed.

Obama said the deaths of civilians on both the Palestinian and Israeli side were "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," he said.

Obama also said he would take a new approach toward Iran that would both emphasize respect for its people and spell out expectations for its leaders.

"Iran is going to be one of our biggest challenges," Obama said during the ABC interview.

Obama said he was concerned about the Islamic republic's support of the Lebanese Shi'ite movement Hezbollah and about Iran's nuclear enrichment, which he said could trigger a Middle East arms race.

In a shift from President George W. Bush's policies, Obama has said he would seek much broader engagement with Iran.

"We are going to have to take a new approach. And I've outlined my belief that engagement is the place to start," he said.

Obama, who takes office as president on Jan. 20, said that approach would include "sending a signal that we respect the aspirations of the Iranian people but that we also have certain expectations in terms of how an international actor behaves.

"We are in preparations for that. We anticipate that we're going to have to move swiftly in that area," Obama said.

Washington accuses Tehran of seeking a nuclear weapon but Tehran insists its nuclear program is for the peaceful purpose of generating electricity.

Obama has said he was prepared to offer Iran economic incentives to stop its nuclear program but he also HAS said sanctions could be toughened if it refused.