DRESDEN, Germany — Trying to move beyond decades of disappointment in the Middle East, President Barack Obama raised hopes Friday for "serious progress this year" in the search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
"The moment is now for us to act," Obama said at a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. They met a day after Obama, in a speech in Cairo, sought to repair America's strained relationship with the Islamic world and lay the groundwork for easing tensions between Israel and its neighbors.
Obama revealed in a round-table discussion with Mideast journalists how much he fears letting efforts flag. "When things stall, everybody knows it," he said. "I want to have a sense of movement and progress."
Joined by Merkel, Obama visited the Buchenwald concentration camp where 56,000 victims died at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.
"More than half a century later, our grief and our outrage over what happened have not diminished," Obama said after touring Buchenwald. "I will not forget what I've seen here today."
Obama's great uncle, Charlie Payne, was among troops of the 89th Infantry Division who liberated a nearby subcamp, Ohrdruf. "He returned from his service in a state of shock," Obama said, "saying little and isolating himself for months on end from family and friends."
He toured the remains of the hillside compound with Merkel and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who was once a starving teenager in the camp.
Merkel endorsed Obama's push for Mideast peace, and the president announced he was sending special envoy George Mitchell back to the region next week as a follow-up to his call for all sides to give ground.
Israel, meanwhile, said it would not heed Obama's appeal to halt settlement activity on lands the Palestinians claim for a future state. Officials said the government plans to allow construction inside existing West Bank settlements to accommodate growing families.
Pressing to end the Mideast impasse, Obama already has met with top Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other key Arab leaders.
Obama said his actions have sent a signal that he is serious and "created the space" for restarted talks. "I'm confident that if we stick with it, having started early, that we can make some serious progress this year."
Merkel was more cautiously optimistic. "With the new American administration, with President Barack Obama, there is actually a unique opportunity now to see to it that this peace process — or let's perhaps be more careful — this negotiation process to be revived again," she said.
So far, Obama's only notable departure from former President George W. Bush is his firmer public pressure on Israel to halt settlement-building. Bush frequently stated support for a construction freeze, but was considered more accommodating of Israel in private. It helped convince many Muslims that the United States was biased toward Israel.