DRESDEN, Germany — A day after he sought to mend fences with the Muslim world in Cairo, President Obama declared Friday that “the moment is now” to press for a Middle East settlement, but he put Israelis and Palestinians on notice that it was up to them to make decisions for a settlement.
Mr. Obama was speaking at a press conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel after a meeting designed to repair some strains in the relationship between Washington and Berlin. Striking a personal note toward the German leader standing next to him, Mr. Obama said: “It’s a great pleasure to be with my friend once again whom I always seek out for intelligent analysis and straight talking.”
Mrs. Merkel praised the president’s speech in Cairo on Thursday in which he offered a “new beginning” for relations between the United States and the Muslim world. He also set out terms for a Middle East settlement, including a halt to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, an end to violence and recognition of Israel’s right to exist by Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls Gaza.
Mrs. Merkel called Mr. Obama’s speech an “ideal basis” to pursue peace efforts.
For his part, Mr. Obama said “the moment is now” to push for a Middle East settlement, urging both Palestinians and Israelis to make concessions.
But, he cautioned, “The United States cannot solve this problem. Ultimately the parties involved are going to have to make a decision” to move forward. “We cannot force them to make those decisions,” he said.
On other issues, the two leaders said they would work closely on trying to persuade Iran to abandon what the west fears is a nuclear program to build an atomic bomb but which Tehran says is for civilian purposes only.
Mr. Obama arrived here after a rift quietly opened up between Germany and the United States, marked by official statements of harmony and private grumbling. It is not an outright crisis in relations, but there are underlying tensions and disagreements on matters ranging from the global economic crisis to the future of inmates held at Guantánamo Bay.
On a more basic level, there is a sense that the Obama administration is ignoring the needs and counsel of longtime allies. Divided Germany was once at the center not only of the cold war, but of American foreign policy as well, which is no longer the case. Yet the United States can ill afford to alienate Europe’s largest economy and its most important intermediary in the strained relationship with Russia. “They’re not angry, they’re not anti-Obama or anti-American,” said John C. Kornblum, a former United States ambassador to Germany and now a business adviser in Berlin. “But they’re confused by the wave of criticism which has been sent at them by the administration and people close to the administration.
“It’s not that they don’t like him,” he said. “They just feel like things aren’t working, like the levers of government are not being engaged to make issues run smoothly.”
Mr. Obama arrived in Dresden, in the former East Germany, on Thursday night for a visit that will also take him to Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp, and the American military hospital in Landstuhl. The German news media have questioned why Mr. Obama was not going to Berlin, suggesting the omission might have been intended as a snub to Mrs. Merkel. Her advisers say it is no such thing and instead praise Mr. Obama’s interest in the former East Germany, where Mrs. Merkel grew up.
Despite their differences, Mr. Obama and Mrs. Merkel smiled as they walked into Dresden Castle to begin their meeting. As the president signed a ceremonial books, he looked up to the chancellor, saying: “Today’s the?”
“Fifth,” Mrs. Merkel replied.
In both books, Mr. Obama wrote: “Greetings from the people of the United States!”
While Mr. Obama enjoys tremendous personal popularity among the German people, relations with Mrs. Merkel have been bumpy from the beginning. In Germany much symbolic weight is attached to Mrs. Merkel’s decision not to travel to Washington to meet with Mr. Obama in March, but to talk by video conference instead.
But signs of discord were evident even last summer, when Mrs. Merkel rejected Mr. Obama’s request during the presidential campaign to speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate, saying it was not an appropriate location for a candidate’s address. Mr. Obama drew more than 200,000 people to hear his speech at a nearby monument.
The president’s high standing with the German public adds to the strain in his relationship with Mrs. Merkel, local analysts say. “Obama is so popular with the German people that you have a lot of comments like, ‘Why don’t we have a German Obama?’ “ said Dietmar Herz, director of the Erfurt School of Public Policy. “Angela Merkel is seen as the exact opposite of a charismatic leader like Obama, and that is difficult to accept.”
There is a sense in Germany, that the smooth Mr. Obama and the flashy President Nicolas Sarkozy of France have a better connection with each other than either does with the serious-minded Mrs. Merkel. And Mr. Sarkozy’s decision to reintegrate France into the command structure of NATO, though it had little direct impact on the war in Afghanistan, stood in stark contrast to Germany’s steadfast refusal to send troops to fight in the more violent south of the country.
At the same time, Mr. Obama’s popularity with the left-wing Social Democrats, rivals to Mrs. Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union in parliamentary elections in September, also helps amplify his and Mrs. Merkel’s differences. The Social Democrats, who are the junior party in an unhappy coalition under Mrs. Merkel, have embraced Mr. Obama as a natural ally.
“The Christian Democrats were closer to the Bush administration than they admitted,” Mr. Herz said. “It was very difficult for conservatives like the chancellor to admit that she was close to a lot of his policies.”
Relations were already frosty as the economic crisis deepened and the German government and Obama administration took sharply differing views on how far to push stimulus spending. Mrs. Merkel believed that the Americans were underestimating the threat of inflation. But American policy makers said she did not understand the depth and the significance of the crisis.