As Kerry Kick-Starts Peace Process, Where’s Obama?

Skeptics wonder if a President burned once by the peace process will really engage again.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry holds a joint press conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh in Amman, Jordan, on July 17, 2013

John Kerry‘s persistence has paid off: Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet in Washington this evening to resume the long-dormant Middle East peace process. That’s no small accomplishment for a Secretary of State whose fixation with breaking the Israeli-Arab deadlock has produced snickers from some who say Kerry is chasing visions of a grand legacy down a dead-end alley.

But in the end, it’s not Kerry who can broker a peace breakthrough — it’s Barack Obama. And the open question is how much a President who felt burned by the peace process in his first term may be willing to risk in the name of brokering a peace deal in his second.

“Left on their own, the parties will not be able to get an agreement,” says University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami, a former adviser to Obama’s first-term Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, and author of The World Through Arab Eyes. “The effort required is above Kerry’s pay grade. At some point, the President will have to step in big. If I were in Kerry’s shoes, I would not go in too deep without getting Obama’s commitment to back him up. I am not sure he has yet.”

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The uncertainty seems warranted, given that Obama hasn’t yet commented in public about Kerry’s efforts. On Friday, White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest would say only: “We certainly welcome the beginning of those conversations. But I don’t have anything to say right now about presidential involvement.”

There’s also Obama’s well-known frustration with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, each of whom contributed to the embarrassment and political damage Obama suffered when his first-term play for a peace deal failed — even by his own admission.

To be sure, Obama hasn’t been totally absent from this flurry of peace-process activity, the first in nearly three years. He called Netanyahu earlier this month and urged him to rejoin negotiations with the Palestinians. And on a visit to Israel in March, Obama delivered a rousing address to an audience of young Israelis making a case for why peace is vital to their country: “Peace is necessary … peace is also just,” Obama declared, adding that a deal remains possible.

Many former peace-process hands are doubtful, however. “I don’t really understand the basis for optimism right now,” says Elliott Abrams, a former national-security staffer in the George W. Bush White House.

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Abrams is particularly skeptical that Obama is ready for an active role in brokering a deal. “This all does seem to be coming from [Kerry] himself. I don’t think he’s being pushed by the President or [National Security Adviser Susan] Rice or [former National Security Adviser Tom] Donilon.” The civil war in Syria and political chaos in Egypt argue against making the peace process America’s top priority in the region, Abrams argues.

It’s possible that Obama is more supportive than he appears — or so argues one senior Administration official who spoke to TIME: “The President’s given Kerry everything he’s asked for, not just running room but reinforcement in public and in private,” says this official. “A week hasn’t gone by that they haven’t talked and measured progress on this initiative, and they’re like-minded about the dangers of leaving the Middle East to fester without trying to relaunch a two-state process.”

And it’s likely premature anyway for Obama to play a defining role by, say, attaching his name to a comprehensive plan that delineates borders and other terms of a final deal. On Sunday, a State Department spokeswoman called this week’s meetings “an opportunity to develop a procedural work plan for how the parties can proceed with the negotiations in the coming months,” suggesting that these talks will be mainly about more talks.

That should give Obama ample time to size up the situation and calculate how large a role he’s willing to assume — and how much political risk. “You know, politically, given the strong bipartisan support for Israel in America, the easiest thing for me to do would be to put this issue aside, just express unconditional support for whatever Israel decides to do,” Obama said in his March speech. “That would be the easiest political path.”

It would also be the wrong one, Obama argued. He may soon have his chance to surprise everyone and take the harder road. But many jaded observers of failed efforts at peace in the Holy Land won’t believe it until they see it.

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