JERUSALEM -- President Barack Obama is still testing the waters on Mideast peace -- but John Kerry can't wait to dive in.
And Kerry, long used to getting to call his own shots, now has to wait for his new boss to say how deep he can go.
The president said repeatedly before and during his trip here that he believes in the peace process -- but he believes as well that that the Israelis and Palestinians will need to show some flexibility before he gets much more involved. As strong as his pro-peace remarks have been during the trip, they haven't changed the president's reluctance to get stung by another failed effort at peace like he did during his first term.
The secretary of state sees making a deal happen as a critical part of his new job -- and while Obama has plenty of other foreign and domestic issues that could cement his legacy, brokering Mideast peace is the rare kind of diplomatic achievement that could put Kerry in the history books.
So far, Obama seems willing to allow Kerry to take a whirl, so long as he keeps a low profile and doesn't generate a political backlash. But the president still hasn't done much to answer the key question of how much of his own political capital he'll put into the effort.
"There are greener pastures that beckon [Obama] in Asia, and you can see, from a variety of other actions that he's taken or hasn't taken in the Middle East, that he would rather turn away from this region," former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk said last week. "John Kerry has exactly the opposite instinct. He wants to engage in the Middle East -- and, in particular, he wants to take on the Israeli-Palestinian challenge, and it's a high priority for him."
Obama in his speech to the Israeli people on Thursday spoke bluntly of tough political choices needed for peace. He said Israel should move forward on restarting talks, even though it wouldn't be easy. He argued that the rise of more democratic governments in the Arab Spring, the escalating sophistication and ability of weapons and the demographics that pose a threat to Israel as a majority-Jewish state, all make the need for peace critical.
But he didn't say how much muscle he's willing to apply to push the two sides closer together -- on the contrary, he sounded averse to arm-twisting and lukewarm on the chances for success.
"There is an opportunity there, there's a window," Obama told his audience. "Peace is possible. ... I'm not saying it's guaranteed. I can't even say that it is more likely than not. But it is possible."
Compare that to Kerry: "The window is closing on this possibility. The region knows it," he said last month during a meeting with Jordan's foreign minister.
At a press conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas earlier Thursday, Obama said the U.S. wouldn't drop the issue -- though he essentially did for the past couple of years.
A senior administration official insisted Thursday that Obama sees an imperative for peace.
"We get the urgency," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"We cannot give up," Obama declared, pointing to Kerry as the vehicle for the U.S. efforts on the issue during his press conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. "As difficult as the current situation is, my administration is committed to doing our part. And I know that Secretary of State John Kerry intends to spend significant time, effort, and energy in trying to bring about a closing of the gap between the parties. We cannot give up on the search for peace. Too much is at stake."
That's an understatement. Kerry was so eager to get started that he left for Israel a day earlier than Obama. After accompanying Obama during his travels to Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman, Kerry is planning to jet back to Israel for a follow-up dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Saturday night.
The new working arrangement is a change for Kerry, who tackled a series of diplomatic missions for Obama in the first term, but as the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he was more of a special envoy than a regular part of the foreign policy team. He could also float ideas and hold meetings without people in the U.S. and abroad assuming they were administration policy.
Before joining Obama's cabinet, the longtime senator from Massachusetts wasn't bashful about indicating publicly that he and Obama were not always on the same page on the Mideast peace issue. At a conference in April 2011, Kerry said Obama was misguided in his initial strategy to jump start talks by trying to badger the Israelis into a settlement freeze.
"I was opposed to the prolonged effort on the settlements in a public way because I never thought it would work and, in fact, we have wasted a year and a half on something that for a number of reasons was not achievable," Kerry told the U.S.-Islamic World Forum. "I think it sort of put the cart ahead of the horse in a way here. The key is to get to the security and borders definition and if you can get the borders definition you've solved the problem of the settlements. But we can't get that discussion right now."
Kerry made clear then that he was eager to see the U.S. make another push for a peace deal. Obama gave a speech the next month which echoed parts of Kerry's approach, but -- with the 2012 elections approaching -- never made a major effort.
And on this trip, Obama dropped his first-term position that the Israelis need to halt settlement construction as a precondition for peace talks.
Foreign policy analysts believe Kerry is more in lockstep with European leaders, who view the Israeli-Palestinian issue with great urgency.
"This should be the single highest priority for new momentum in American foreign policy, even of all the other challenges that we face in the world today," United Kingdom Foreign Secretary William Hague said in January before visiting Kerry last month.
But it's also a change for Obama, who's getting more encouragement to dig into the issue from his secretary of state. Some observers see Kerry standing a bit closer to the Palestinians than his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, and less likely to reflexively embrace the Israeli position.
A former senior State Department official, who asked not to be named, expects Kerry to press for diplomatic latitude from a president and White House accustomed to keeping a tight rein on foreign policy.
"If what Kerry ends up doing is straining the leash, that's good and if he gets away with it, that's good," said the ex-official. "My guess is he'll have quite a bit of leeway but not an infinite amount."
The perception that Kerry is more gung ho on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking than his boss leads to another question: does Obama still believe solving the long-running dispute is a critical national security interest of the United States?
During the 2008 campaign, Obama seemed to hold that view. He described Israeli-Palestinian peace as something which could promote American interests across the region. And his aides referred to the "centrality" of the conflict to other problems of concern to the U.S. overseas.
After taking office, Obama indeed seemed to be in a hurry to tackle the issue, quickly naming George Mitchell as a presidential envoy for the peace process and signaling it would be managed from the White House. The approach largely sidelined Clinton on the issue.
"I think that the need for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and the Arab states remains as critical as ever," Obama declared in April 2010. "It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower, and when conflicts break out, one way or another we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure."
Obama's description of his current trip as a listening tour seems to lack some of the urgency usually ascribed to a critical national security matter.
"My goal on this trip is to listen," Obama told Israel's Channel 2 last week. "What I do know is that it is profoundly in the interests of the Israeli people and the Palestinian people to get this resolved," he said, without directly describing the U.S.'s stake in the outcome.
Some experts say the talk of the U.S. viewing the Israeli-Palestinian standoff as a core national security issue for the U.S. may be largely posturing.
"It's really an oxymoron. You can't say, 'It's in your crucial national security interest,' and 'You can't want it more than the parties. The two things don't go together," said Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine. "You can't declare something crucial and then give the other parties a veto on it....If it is really in our national security interest it should not be something U.S. will take no for an answer on."
"If a president is audacious enough to tackle this problem again, he and his secretary of state and his national security team better be very clear in their own minds why they're doing this," former Middle East peace negotiator William Quandt said at a recent U.S. Institute of Peace forum. "Unless they're convinced in their own minds that they're doing it for reasons of fundamental American national interest, and that they can explain those interests to the American public and to Congress, they probably shouldn't waste their time."
Some analysts say the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains a key recruiting tool for terrorists and has the potential to strengthen the role of Islamic fundamentalists in the region.
However, many Israelis dispute the notion that the issue is at the core of extremism and violence across the Middle East. They argue that the toppling of rulers like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the unrest in other nearby countries has little to do with the long-running dispute in the Holy Land.
"The Palestinian issue has been for a long time been trumpeted as key to all problems and instabilities in the broader Middle East. It never was -- and it certainly isn't now, just looking at the map from Mali to Afghanistan to Pakistan," former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Zalman Shoval told reporters in Washington last month. "The Israeli-Palestinian problem, as problematic as it is to us and to the Palestinians, is not the main factor of what's happening in the broader Middle East."
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