ALGIERS, Algeria -- Frustrated by a virtually moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry exhorted leaders on both sides Thursday to "lead" and to do so now to prevent the negotiations from collapsing.
In Algeria for strategic security talks after traveling to the Mideast twice in the past 10 days to rescue the peace process, Kerry called it a "critical moment" for the peace process and vowed to continue his efforts "no matter what." But he added there are limits to what the Obama administration can do to push the parties together and said it would be a "tragedy" if the talks failed.
In unusually blunt terms, Kerry made his impatience clear although he allowed that he could not force Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to continue the talks, let alone actually resolve the long-running conflict.
"You can facilitate, you can push, you can nudge, but the parties themselves have to make fundamental decisions and compromises," he said. "The leaders have to lead and they have to be able to see a moment when it's there."
He recalled the old adage that you can lead a horse to water but can't make it drink.
"Now is the time to drink," Kerry said. "The leaders need to know that."
Later during a visit to a Nike store for a youth soccer event, Kerry half-joked that he was tempted to use the company's slogan "Just Do It" in his recent discussions with Abbas and Netanyahu. "But," he added wryly, "I don't know if that would have worked so well."
At a news conference with Algeria's foreign minister, Kerry told reporters he planned to talk with both leaders Thursday afternoon. He said U.S. mediators huddled with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators in Jerusalem overnight.
That late-night meeting, which lasted until 4 a.m., had yielded some progress in resolving "some of the questions that have arisen as a result of the events of the last few days. But there is a still a gap and that gap will have to be closed and closed very soon," Kerry said.
Kerry has spent much of the last two weeks frantically trying to keep the peace talks from breaking down.
He saw Netanyahu in Israel on Monday and Abbas last week in Jordan, but cancelled a third trip to the region on Wednesday after the Palestinians said they would seek greater United Nations recognition over Israeli objections. Abbas announced the move after Israel refused to release a group of Palestinian prisoners it had earlier agreed to free.
Both actions run counter to the agreement the two sides reached last year to negotiate a settlement by the end of April.
Despite eight months of talks, there have been few, if any, tangible signs of progress. Confronted with the deadlock, Kerry and his team have incrementally lowered the bar for success of the talks from a comprehensive peace deal to a framework for an agreement and are now trying merely to keep the two sides talking beyond the initial target date.
Kerry said both Netanyahu and Abbas have told him they remain committed to talks. He said the current disagreements were over "process" rather than "the fundamental substance of a final status agreement."
If the two sides can't find a way to continue talking, Kerry said, "it would be a tragedy for both of them."