On the eve of a trip to the Middle East later this week, Obama told NPR he would continue to press Israel to freeze settlements in the West Bank, a move that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused.
Obama also reiterated support for a Palestinian state in the interview, while urging Palestinians to improve security and "end the incitement that understandably makes Israelis so concerned."
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"I don't think we have to change strong support for Israel," Obama said. "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 interests but also U.S. interests."
On Wednesday, Obama will kick off his trip to the region by visiting Saudi Arabia. The next day he is set to deliver a hotly anticipated speech in Egpyt. Presidential aides have described the Cairo speech as a major appeal for friendship with the Muslim world.
"We want to get back on a shared partnership, back in a conversation that focuses on the shared values," Denis McDonough, a deputy national security adviser for the White House told the Wall Street Journal.
He will end the trip with a visit to Europe to commemorate D-Day.
Even as the Obama administration has voiced high hopes for the trip, Obama himself has dialed back expectations of what can be accomplished.
"The danger, I think, is when the United States, or any country, thinks that we can simply impose these values on another country with a different history and a different culture," he said in his first interview with the BBC.
But he said he planned to trumpet his decision to close Guantanamo so that the U.S. might be seen once again as a "role model" on human rights.
"The message I hope to deliver is that democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion -- those are not simply principles of the west to be hoisted on these countries, but rather what I believe to be universal principles that they can embrace," Obama said.