Kerry's Middle East peace push teeters

Secretary of State John Kerry's long-shot push for a Middle East peace deal appeared on the brink of collapse at week's end, with Israelis and Palestinians trading barbs and U.S. lawmakers piling on.

Kerry had hoped to get consensus on a blueprint for a peace agreement during his four-day trip to the region – his 10th since taking office.

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Two days in, the possibility of a firm deal sealed by a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas appeared increasingly remote.

“The Palestinian side will not even look at a worthless piece of paper, a framework agreement, which contains general principles for later negotiations, when the two sides have already been negotiating for months and years,” Abbas deputy Abed Rabo said in a statement Friday.

Kerry acknowledged that a peace deal remains a tough sell.

“I am a believer in the possibility [that] we could achieve something,” he told U.S. students in Jerusalem on Friday. “But it will be very, very difficult.”

Kerry has made a top priority of achieving progress on a peace deal that has eluded a long string of his predecessors. He efforts come despite President Obama's reluctance to expend much political capital on relaunching talks that collapsed early in his first term.

Failure to resolve one of the Middle East's most intractable issues could hurt both Kerry and Obama, both of whom have already come under criticism for their muted response to the chaos in Syria and Egypt.

Now time is running out before Kerry's self-imposed deadline of late April. With the clock ticking, both sides are digging in their heels.

Kerry's latest trip got off to an inauspicious start when Netanyahu, during a joint press briefing with America's top diplomat, accused Abbas of not being a partner for peace.

The Israeli leader took offense to Abbas's embrace of Palestinian prisoners released as part of the peace talks, many of whom were accused of killing Israelis.

The State Department spent the rest of the week pushing back against suggestions that Netanyahu's remarks signaled the death knell of negotiations.

“I think the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu was at the table last night and again this morning shows that he's still invested in the process despite his public comments,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Friday.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who toured Israel over the winter congressional recess, sided with Netanyahu in comments that were widely picked up by Israeli media.

“Netanyahu has serious, serious concerns about the plan as it has been presented to him, whether it be on the ability of Israel to defend its borders, on the reliability of a Palestinian state ... and particularly on the overall security,” McCain said at a press conference on Friday. “We also are very concerned.”

The State Department declined to criticize the lawmakers, even though their comments threatened to undermine Kerry's private negotiation. But some other administration allies didn't hold back.

“I understand that Lindsey Graham is in a tough primary but gee whiz, guys, I think being the mouthpiece of the prime minister of Israel while our secretary of State is there is not very smart,” former Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), the director of the Wilson Center, told MSNBC on Friday.

She added, “Bibi Netanyahu has direct channels to John Kerry any time he wants to use them – either public or private – and I think frankly what they did, however well intended it might have been or however focused on their politics it might have been, should not have happened.”

The Palestinians are also balking, notably at Kerry's proposal that Israeli troops be stationed in the Jordan Valley along the border with Jordan, inside the territory of a future Palestinian state.

Kerry was greeted by protests when he visited Abbas in Ramallah late Friday, according to Reuters, with a crowd of several hundred chanting: “Kerry, you coward, there's no place for you in Palestine!”

Meanwhile, the top Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, on Friday reportedly told an Arabic newspaper that he feared the Israelis wanted to assassinate Abbas. He compared the situation to the murky death of Palestinian icon Yasser Arafat, whom many supporters believe was covertly killed, though the official cause of death was a stroke.

 “The Israelis have this approach,” Erekat was quoted as saying to Asharq al-Awsat. “Before President Arafat was killed with poison, there were voices in [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's government that said Arafat was an obstacle who must be removed, and they are doing that again.”

Harf acknowledged that agreement on a framework could slip beyond Kerry's current trip.

“We're at a critical point. The secretary said yesterday that, you know, very soon, if not now, we are at a point where both sides are going to have to make tough decisions. And we are focused on those discussions squarely,” she said Friday.

 “I don't want to look into a crystal ball, because I just can't, to see when we might get some sort of agreement on a framework.”