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A tough offering for peace

After 10 visits to Israel and the Palestinian territories and scores of meetings with their leaders, Secretary of State John Kerry has made no visible progress toward a comprehensive peace deal – a long-shot cause that he has single-mindedly pursued even as more violent and urgent crises in Syria, Iraq and Egypt are starved of U.S. engagement.

Kerry has, however, succeeded in putting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on the spot.

With the end of a nine-month term of negotiations approaching in April, Kerry last week shifted away from trying to push the two cautious and reluctant leaders toward accord on the terms of Palestinian statehood. Instead he pressed them to consider a U.S.-designed “agreed framework” that would set out principles for resolving what Kerry called the “core issues” while leaving difficult details for future bargaining.

That pushed both sides to “a point where the choices narrow down and the choices are obviously real and difficult,” as Kerry put it. According to Israeli and Arab news reports, Abbas must decide whether to accept the notion that Israeli troops would monitor the eastern border of a Palestinian state for an extended period and whether to acknowledge Israel as a state for the Jewish people. Netanyahu must consider whether, in exchange for such potentially historic commitments, he would agree that the territory of the Palestinian state be based on Israel’s 1967 borders and that its capital be in greater Jerusalem.

The odds are that one or both men will reject the U.S. terms or, more likely, wrap them in reservations and ambivalent responses that have the same effect. But Kerry may at least force Netanyahu and Abbas to grapple seriously with the terms for peace for the first time since President Barack Obama took office five years ago.

While both are under considerable domestic pressure not to endorse the proposed principles, they also have reason to worry about the consequences of spurning them.

Netanyahu must weigh the risk of increased international isolation for Israel, including European boycott movements and further votes by U.N. bodies to recognize a Palestinian state. In turn, if Palestinians are seen as having passed up this U.S. initiative – having rejected previous framework offers in 2000 and 2008 – Abbas should lose what remains of his credibility in Washington. Much could depend on whether Arab governments push the Palestinian president to agree and provide him with political cover, which is why Kerry shrewdly paid visits to Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Having expended so much time and personal prestige on his dream of brokering a Middle East peace deal, Kerry may be tempted to follow the example of previous U.S. mediators and accept a muddled outcome that allows both sides to avoid meaningful concessions. He should not. If Israelis and Palestinians prove unwilling in the next few weeks to commit themselves to the broad trade-offs a peace deal requires, Kerry should accept defeat – and spend a little more time on the wars, coups and terrorism engulfing the rest of the region.