(photo credit: AP [file])
US President-elect Barack Obama stood by comments he made this summer in Sderot on the right of Israelis to defend themselves, saying Sunday that "a basic principle of any country is that they've got to protect their citizens."
He was asked about his Sderot comments, which included his statement that he would do "everything in my power" to stop rockets attacks on a house where his daughters slept and expected Israel to do the same, during an interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC.
Obama also told Stephanopoulos that the situation in the region demonstrated the importance of strong US engagement from the beginning of his term, since "working through the politics of this requires a third party that everybody has confidence [in]... to see a fair and just outcome."
He said that the "Obama administration, if we do it right, can provide that kind of interlocutor."
When questioned on whether his Middle East policy would build on US President George W. Bush's foundation or represent a clean break, Obama suggested continuity when he replied, "I think that 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."
When it came to Iran, however, Obama indicated he would taking a much sharper turn from the past.
"We are going to have to take a new approach," he said. "Engagement is the place to start."
He stressed the importance of "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."
Obama referred to Iran's involvement in terrorism and the potential for its pursuit of a nuclear weapon to spark an arms race in the Middle East.
He described putting "a new emphasis on respect and a new emphasis on being willing to talk, but also a clarity about what our bottom lines are."
Soon after Obama's TV appearance, more than 100 pro-Israel protesters gathered near the hotel where the president-elect and his family are living before moving into the White House.
"We're trying to show President-elect Obama that we're strong supporters of Israel," said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who organized the event. He said that while others demonize Israel's actions, the rally countered with pride in the country and its actions.
"We're proud of Israel and we're proud of our soldiers and the IDF, and we want that message to get through to the president-elect."
The crowd carried signs supporting Israel's fight, sang songs including Hatikva and displayed a Kassam rocket that had landed in Sderot.
Another local Jewish activist criticized the event, however, saying it wouldn't help Obama think more positively of Israel's actions.
"I think it's outrageous that the Jewish community is protesting outside Barack Obama's hotel room," he said, adding that he was sure Obama is already aware of the community's support for Israel in its conflict with Hamas. "I don't think he needs people protesting outside his kids' hotel room."
JTA contributed to this report.