Interviews

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now an interview with President Barack Obama. The president leaves tomorrow for a week long overseas trip. It takes him to the Middle East as well as to France and to Germany. Mr. Obama will visit the Buchenwald concentration camp, he'll take part in D-Day commemorations. But the part of the trip that is most heavily promoted is his visit to Egypt. It's there on the campus of Cairo University that he will give a speech on relations between the United States and the Muslim world. Earlier today he sat down in the White House library with our co-host Michele Norris and MORNING EDITION's Steve Inskeep to talk about his vision for the Middle East.

STEVE INSKEEP: Mr. President, welcome to the program.

President BARACK OBAMA: Thank you so much.

MICHELE NORRIS: We're so glad to join us, or we could join you in this case.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: If you want to improve relations with the Muslim world, do you have to change or alter in some way the strong U.S. support for Israel?

Pres. OBAMA: No I don't think that we have to change strong U.S. support for Israel. I think that we do have to retain a constant belief in the possibilities of negotiations that will lead to peace. And that's going to require from my view a two state solution that is going to require that each side Israelis and Palestinians meet their obligations. I have said very clearly to the Israelis both privately and publicly that a freeze on settlements including natural growth is part of those obligations.

I have said to the Palestinians that their continued progress on security and ending the incitement that I think understandably makes Israelis so concerned, you know, that that has to be - those obligations have to be met. So the key is to just believe that that process can move forward and that all sides are going to have to give. And it's not going to an easy path but one that I think we can achieve.

INSKEEP: Mr. President you've mentioned a freeze on settlements. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was quoted today saying to Cabinet members in Israel that he will not follow your demand for a freeze on settlements in the West Bank. That's it not going to happen. What does it suggest that Israel is not taking your advice?

Pres. OBAMA: Well I think it's still early in the process. You know, they have formed a government what - a month ago. I think that we're going to have a series of conversations. You know, obviously, the first priority of an Israeli prime minister is to think in terms of Israel's security. I believe that, strategically, the status quo is unsustainable when it comes to Israeli security, that over time in the absence of peace with the Palestinians, Israel will continue to be threatened militarily and will have enormous problems along its borders. And so, you know, it is not only in the Palestinians' interest to have a state. I believe that it's in the Israelis as well, and the in the United States' interest as well.

INSKEEP: But if the United States says for years that Israel should stop the settlements and for years, Israel simply does not, and the United States continued supporting Israel in roughly the same way, what does that do with American credibility and the Muslim world that you're trying to address?

Pres. OBAMA: Well, I think what is certainly true is that the United States asked to follow through on what it says. Now, as I've said before, I haven't said anything yet because it's early in the process.

But it is important for us to be clear about, you know, what we believe will lead to peace and that there's not equivocation and there's not a sense that we expect only, you know, compromise on one side. It's going to have to be two-sided. I don't think anybody would deny that in theory. When it comes to the concrete, then the politics of it get difficult, both within the Israeli and the Palestinian communities. But look, if this was easy it would have already been done.

NORRIS: Many people in the region are concerned when they look at the U.S. relationship with Israel, they feel that Israel has favored status in all cases. And what do you say to people in the Muslim world who feel that the U.S. has repeatedly over time blindly supported Israel?

Pres. OBAMA: Well, what I'd say is there is no doubt that the United States has a special relationship with Israel. There are a lot of Israelis who used to be Americans. There is a huge cross cultural ties between the two countries. I think that as a vibrant democracy that shares many of our values, obviously we're deeply sympathetic to Israel. And I think - I would also say that given past statements surrounding Israel the notion that they should be driven in to the sea, that they should be annihilated, they should be obliterated.

The, you know, armed aggression that's been directed towards them in the past, you can understand why not only Israelis would feel concerned but the United States would feel it was important to back this stalwart ally. Now, having said all that, what is also true is that part of being a good friend is being honest 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 interest but also U.S. interests. And that's part of a new dialogue that I'd like to see encouraged in the region.

NORRIS: Mr. President you have talked about creating a new path forward on Guantanamo on the relationship that the U.S. has with countries in the Muslim world and on several fronts. But at the same time, the former vice president has been out talking about the policies in the former administration. He's forceful. He's unapologetic, and he 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?

Pres. OBAMA: Well, he also happens to be wrong.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: Right? And last time, immediately after his 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 is a legitimate debate to be had about national security. And I don't doubt the sincerity of, you know, the former vice president or the previous administration in wanting to protect the American people, and these are very difficult decisions.

You know, if you've got a - as I said in my speech, if you've got an organization that is out to kill Americans and is not bound by any rules, then that puts an enormous strain on not only our intelligence operations, our national security operations, but also our legal system. The one thing that I'm absolutely persuaded by, though, is that if we are true to our ideals and our values, that these decisions aren't made unilaterally by the executive branch, but rather in consultation and in open fashion and in Democratic debate, that the Muslim world and the world generally will see that we have upheld our values, been true to our ideals, and that ultimately will make us safer.

NORRIS: That was President Obama speaking with me and MORNING EDITION host Steve Inskeep earlier today at the White House. The president also talked about engaging Iran and the escalating war in Afghanistan. You can hear what he had to say about those things and more on MORNING EDITION tomorrow morning, and you can hear the full interview at npr.org.

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