With the deadline for the Mideast peace talks five weeks away and little visible progress between the Palestinians and Israelis, it looks like the U.S. is more interested in saving face at this point than actually brokering a deal. The short-term goal is to get an agreement on a U.S.-drafted framework paper to allow for further talks.

The crisis over Russia’s brazen actions in Ukraine has taken precedence over the ongoing Mideast impasse, further complicating both the Iran talks and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, with Russia ostensibly on the side of the West, but a stumbling block to American interests.

It’s clear that President Obama feels the onus is on Israel to break the impasse by being more conciliatory. He praised Palestinian Authority President Abbas during a White House visit this week as “somebody who has consistently renounced violence,” and the description of a peace agreement Obama envisioned made no mention of Israel as a Jewish state — a point of serious contention between the parties.

In contrast, when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu visited the White House a few weeks ago, he was surprised to learn that President Obama, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg View, had set the stage by publicly pressuring the Israeli leader to make progress. He also suggested that if the talks fail, the U.S. might be helpless in offsetting “the international fallout.” Goldberg described the president’s message as “a veiled threat” to Israel.

What’s more, Secretary of State Kerry seems to have backed off his insistence that a peace agreement would call for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. In congressional testimony last week he said it was “a mistake for some people to be raising” the issue “again and again as the critical decider of” the PA’s “attitude toward the possibility of a state and peace.”

Abbas made it clear on Monday that he feels the Palestinians have done enough on the issue, asserting that in 1993, they “recognized the State of Israel.” Netanyahu is insisting that the Palestinians go a step further and recognize Israel as a nation-state for the Jewish people.

Is this rhetorical conflict a matter of substance or brinksmanship?

The argument has been made that Egypt and Jordan made peace with Israel without being asked to acknowledge Israel as a Jewish state, and some Israelis say they don’t need the Palestinians to say the words, that this is just Netanyahu raising the bar too high, purposefully, for the Palestinians to reach. But Netanyahu and many others are adamant that the refusal of the Palestinians to admit that Israel is a Jewish state lies at the very heart of the conflict. The differences with Egypt and Jordan were over land, it has been noted; this is about history. Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state would also diminish if not end the Palestinian claim to the land and the “right of return” to settle within Israel’s borders.

Painfully aware that the Palestinian and Israeli narratives are parallel and never connect, U.S. peacemakers are said to be considering a framework document that would say, in effect, “from now on” Israel would be viewed as a Jewish state. No looking back at past historical accounts, just ahead to the future. It’s a clever and logical approach, but will it fly?

At the moment, both sides seem more concerned about not being blamed for a collapse of the talks then about making them succeed. And Washington is frustrated with Jerusalem and Ramallah, and distracted by the Putin putsch. All of which does not bode well for a breakthrough on either the Mideast or Iran fronts, with the clock ticking.

editor@jewishweek.org