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U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, who has avoided commenting on foreign policy matters, said on Wednesday he will "engage immediately" in the situation in the Middle East when he becomes president.

Obama, who takes office on January 20, repeated that he was deeply concerned about the situation in Gaza but said he it would be imprudent to send signals that his incoming administration is running foreign policy.

Obama broke his silence about the violence in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, calling the loss of civilian lives in Gaza and in Israel a "source of deep concern for me."

The president-elect added he would adhere to his principle that only Bush should be the voice of U.S. foreign policy at this time but he would have plenty to say after his inauguration in two weeks.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Obama said he was prepared to step immediately into the diplomatic field once he takes office.

"I am doing everything that we have to do to make sure that the day that I take office we are prepared to engage immediately in trying to deal with the situation there," he told reporters. "Not only the short-term situation but building a process whereby we can achieve a more lasting peace in the region."

Obama has refused to make any lengthy comments on the violence in Gaza, where more than 600 Palestinians have been killed in the 12-day Israeli offensive to suppress rocket fire against its citizens by the militant group Hamas.

In the past two days, he has only voiced concern about civilian deaths. When asked on Wednesday why he refused to give a more in-depth reaction to the situation, he again deferred to President George W. Bush.

"We cannot be sending a message to the world that there are two different administrations conducting foreign policy," he said. "Until I take office, it would be imprudent of me to start sending out signals that somehow we are running foreign policy when I am not legally authorized to do so."

Asked if he was concerned about criticism from the region that he had been too quiet about a major foreign policy challenge that will face him soon, Obama said:

"I can't control how people interpret what I'm saying, other than to repeat what I said. Hopefully, they hear my message."

"This silence is not as a consequence of a lack of concern. In fact, it's not silence. I've explained very clearly exactly what institutional constraints I'm under when it comes to this issue."

Obama has been accused both of siding with Israel with his silence or of failing to stand with Israel.

White House national security adviser: Iran to be Obama's biggest Mideast challengePresident-elect Barack Obama should seek tougher sanctions against Iran, which will be his biggest Middle East challenge, outgoing White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley said on Wednesday.

In a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Hadley also said the Bush administration had laid the groundwork for progress toward Palestinian-Israeli peace, despite the fighting in Gaza.

"For the next administration, the biggest challenge in this region is Iran," Hadley said in a speech looking back on President George W. Bush's foreign policy.

"Negotiations with Iran, as some have proposed, without leverage on Iran will not produce a change in Iranian behavior or advance U.S. interests," he said.