05/28/2013 10:12 am ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

John Kerry and the Middle East Peace Process: Housekeeping or Breakthrough?

John Kerry must be a very optimistic person if he devotes so much of his time to the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process. By now, and after so many briefings on the much talked- about process, he surely knows that it has become the graveyard of so many expectations, plans, initiatives and whatnot. Understatement is always of the essence when dealing with this issue, and it seems (and that may be just a superficial impression) that the good-meaning secretary of state must be reminded of this truism regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians, judging by the contents of his statements and the intensity of his activities. If Kerry needed a reminder, he got it from none other than the Egyptian President, Muhammad Morsi.

When in Addis Ababa to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Organization of African Unity, Kerry was asked by the Egyptian leader, "so what about Syria?," and this question illustrates the fact that in the Middle East, the local leaders, the people whose finger is on the pulse of what REALLY matters, are much more concerned with Syria than any other current regional issue. If Kerry asked the Lebanese, Iraqis, Saudis, Qataris and Jordanian whether it was Syria or Israel/Palestine on top of their list of worries, the answer would definitely be the same as Morsi's: "Syria." Yes, also King Abdallah of Jordan may have whispered it to the Secretary few days ago when they met with Israel's president and the Palestinian president, Abbas, on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea.

In public, King Abdallah talks about the peace process, but the truth is that the Syrian situation is Jordan's prime problem, mainly due to the influx of refugees, but also because the possibility that the borders between Syria-Jordan-Israel will become a zone of violent conflict as a result of the chaos in Syria.

In the meeting in Addis Ababa, Kerry got another reminder as to what are the real, pressing problems are in some key Middle East countries. It was when Morsi, who pleads desperately for urgent economic support from the international community, could not pinpoint any reform/change in Egypt's economy, something that is demanded of the Egyptians as a precondition for receiving the much-needed infusion of cash. This is a crucial issue, as if Egypt's economy will crumble, the regional repercussions will certainly dwarf any other potential trouble spot, including the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

To the credit of the secretary it is worth emphasizing that he initiated a new plan aimed at raising $4 billion to prop up the Palestinian economy. This is a good idea, but ideas like this are judged by their results, and there may be a long way between the announcement of this initiative and its actual implementation. Moreover, that past experience shows us two important things about the economic aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian situation; first, a lot of money was channeled to the Palestinian economy after Oslo, in fact the Palestinian Authority became the largest recipient per capita of foreign aid in the entire world. Yet the economic situation in the West Bank, while much better than that in Hamas-controlled Gaza and in some neighboring Arab countries -- Syria, for example -- has not brought about a structural change in the local economy. Much needed explanation as to why it has not happened was recently provided by Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian PM in his groundbreaking interview to the New York Times. Secondly, the economy, while being a possible incentive for Israelis and Palestinians to keep the process going, has never been the real motivation for the two parties to move towards a final settlement.

The issues of borders, Jerusalem, refugees (both Arab and Jewish), security arrangements and settlements are the issues which will determine the achievement of a lasting and binding agreement. There is no indication, judging by what is published about Kerry's talks, that anything substantial is happening with regard to those thorny issues. In fact it seems that both sides are not ready to seriously discuss them; surely there is no sign of any meaningful change in the stated positions in Jerusalem and Ramallah, which may signal any possible progress.

An interview given by Yair Lapid, the number two of Netanyahu, a man who was considered A "Left Winger," the new hope of Israel's doves, indicates that Netanyahu need not worry too much about pressure from his new coalition partner. State President Shimon Peres gave his speech in Jordan, saying that the majority of Israelis favor the two-state solution, but under the circumstances, it sounded more like a debate between him and Netanyahu and Lapid, an internal Israeli matter, nothing that can affect the peace process. Lapid made a strategic decision when he chose to be the finance minister, rather than the foreign minister, thus signaling that the peace process is not his main priority. Nor is it Netanyahu's, as the PM is greatly preoccupied with the Syrian situation, much like Morsi and other regional leaders.

As for the Palestinians, there, too, does not seem to be a strong constituency for a major breakthrough with Israel. Abbas and Fayyad are at odds, as are Fatah and Hamas, and all of them are aware that the regional situation is not really conducive to a dramatic change with regard to the process.

So, here we come again to Secretary Kerry and his initiative to raise funds for the Palestinians. Important and timely, but falls into the category of housekeeping, not something to look down at in the context of the turbulent Middle East.