President Obama, just days before traveling to the Middle East to deliver a key speech on U.S.-Muslim relations, on Monday reasserted U.S. support for Israel. But in an interview with NPR, the president also said he will continue to push for a Palestinian state and for a freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
"I don't think we have to change strong support for Israel," Obama said during an interview with NPR hosts Michele Norris of All Things Considered and Steve Inskeep of Morning Edition.
"We do have to retain a constant belief in the possibilities of negotiations that will lead to peace," Obama said. "And that's going to require, from my view, a two-state solution."
It will also require, he said, a freeze on Israeli settlements, including expansion to accommodate successive generations of settlers, and for Palestinians to make progress on security and end "the incitement that understandably makes Israelis so concerned."
The president also suggested that the United States' special relationship with Israel requires some tough love. "Part of being a good friend is being honest," Obama said. "And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests. And that's part of a new dialogue that I'd like to see encouraged in the region."
On Thursday, Obama will be in Cairo, where he will deliver a highly anticipated speech that the White House has characterized as a message to the Arab world — and a high-profile opportunity to reshape America's image among Muslim countries in the region. On his way to Cairo, the president will stop Wednesday in Saudi Arabia, where he'll meet in Riyadh with another Mideast ally, King Abdullah. In recent weeks, Obama has met in Washington with King Abdullah of Jordan, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A meeting scheduled with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was cancelled after the death of Mubarak's 12-year-old grandson.
But Monday's news headlines only underscored the challenges that face the new president in the troubled region. Netanyahu flatly rejected Obama's call for a halt to Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. Netanyahu said it would be tantamount to "freezing life." The settlements must expand, he said, to accommodate growing families.
And in Afghanistan, where the war has now dragged on for more than seven years, 28 people were reported killed in violence Monday — including four U.S. troops felled by roadside bombs.
Inskeep asked how escalating the war in Afghanistan, a Muslim country, could complicate or even undermine the president's effort to engage the Muslim world — particularly given civilian casualties. Obama expressed regret for the civilian casualties, but he also invoked the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in defense of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
"Every time you have civilian casualties, that always complicates things," Obama said, "whether [it's in] a Muslim or non-Muslim country.
"Part of what I'll be addressing in my speech [is a] reminder that the reason we're in Afghanistan is very simple: Three-thousand Americans were killed," he said. "You had a devastating attack on the American homeland. The organization that planned those attacks intends to carry out further attacks.
"We cannot stand by and allow that to happen," he said.
It is not often that the president has invoked the Sept. 11 attacks in defense of his foreign policy. But with violence in Afghanistan escalating as the country's Aug. 20 elections approach and military deaths rising, the president's commitment to the battle is also playing out: He plans to send 17,000 more combat troops and 4,000 more military trainers there over the summer, increasing to 55,000 the size of the U.S. force in Afghanistan.
Inskeep and Norris also pressed the president on how he can develop credibility in the Muslim world if Israel keeps pushing back on the settlement issue.
"What does it suggest," Inskeep asked, "that Israel is not taking your advice?"
Obama responded: "It's still early in the process. They've [Israel] formed a government, what, a month ago?"
"We're going to have a series of conversations," the president added. "I believe that strategically, the status quo is unsustainable when it comes to Israel's security," Obama said. "Over time, in the absence of peace with Palestinians, Israel will continue to be threatened militarily and will have enormous problems on its borders."
Norris asked Obama about his promise to extend an open hand to Iran, and whether, given their recent political gains, he would extend the same hand to the Palestinian militant organization Hamas and to Lebanon's Hezbollah organization, which the U.S. has called a terrorist group.
"Iran is a huge, significant nation-state that has, across the international community, been recognized as such," Obama said. "Hezbollah and Hamas are not. I don't think we have to approach those entities in the same way."
But if a member of Hezbollah were to be elected head of state in Lebanon, which is part of the United Nations, "then that would raise these issues. That hasn't happened yet," Obama said.
Norris also asked Obama whether former Vice President Dick Cheney's outspoken defense of Bush-era national security policy has hurt the new administration's efforts to craft a new image of America on the global stage.
Cheney, Norris says, has been "forceful, unapologetic and doesn't seem willing to scale back his rhetoric."
"How much does that undermine or complicate your effort to extend a hand, to explain the Obama doctrine and draw a line of demarcation between that administration and yours?" Norris asked.
Obama suggested that though he believes Cheney's analysis is flawed, the former vice president has every right to weigh in on important national security issues.
"He also happens to be wrong, right?" Obama said. "Last time, immediately after his last speech, I think there was a fact check on his speech that didn't get a very good grade.
"Does it make it more complicated? No. because I think these are complicated issues, and there's a legitimate debate to be had about national security."
Obama added: "I don't doubt the sincerity of the former vice president or the previous administration in wanting to protect the American people."