WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State John F. Kerry signaled Friday that he may scale back his intense effort to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace in view of the two sides' "unhelpful actions" in recent days.
With the parties at an impasse, Kerry said it was "reality-check time" because "there are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps in order to be able to move forward."
Though neither side has called off the talks, "we are not going to sit there indefinitely," Kerry said during a news conference in Morocco, where he stopped at the end of a weeklong trip to the Middle East and Europe. "It is not an open-ended effort."
He said he would return to Washington to confer with President Obama before taking more steps in the effort, which has produced few, if any, visible signs of progress. Though U.S. officials can push for peace, "the leaders have to make these decisions," he said.
Kerry's eight-month effort has teetered on the edge of collapse in recent days as Israel has refused to release more Palestinian prisoners and the Palestinians have formally applied to join 15 international organizations in hopes of using membership to apply new diplomatic pressure on the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two sides have been trying to negotiate the creation of a separate Palestinian state.
The collapse of talks would be a personal blow to Kerry, who has devoted much time and energy to the peacemaking effort, and to the Obama administration, which aborted a first peacemaking effort in 2010.
However, many analysts believe it is more likely that the effort will not be abandoned but simply assigned a lower priority, an approach that would reduce the risk of an outbreak of Palestinian violence and allow the parties to seek progress on secondary issues at least.
Kerry has won praise for his focus on the peacemaking effort, which the administration believes is a key to resolving other related Middle East crises. But recently he has been the target of criticism for giving the long-shot effort top priority at the expense of other U.S. national security goals, and he acknowledged in his news conference that the administration faces many urgent challenges, including Ukraine, Iran and Syria.
The administration has already been scaling back its short-term goals in the talks, and it was not clear that adding time for more discussion would yield results.
Also, some critics, including strong supporters of Israel, have questioned the administration's deliberations on whether to release convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, an American serving a life sentence for selling U.S. secrets to Israel, in hopes of winning an extension of negotiations.
The last four U.S. presidents have resisted pressure to release Pollard.
Officials on each side in the negotiations, worried about being blamed for any breakdown of talks, argued Friday that the other side didn't want to make concessions needed for peace, and deserved responsibility for the impasse.
Palestinian officials contended that Israel's unwillingness to release an additional 26 Palestinian prisoners last Saturday had brought on the breakdown. Israel argued that it should not be obliged to release more prisoners when the Palestinians were not committing to continuing the negotiations.
Israeli officials contended that the Palestinians had recently stepped up their conditions for a continuation of talks, now wanting commitments that Israel would agree to a Palestinian state along the border lines from before the 1967 war as well as the release of 1,200 Palestinian prisoners.
Palestinian leaders denied that they had made such demands.