Every presidential administration thinks they have the answers that have eluded a century of diplomats which will solve the Jewish-Arab conflict in the Middle East. Some have gotten closer than others; Bill Clinton thought he’d succeeded until Yasser Arafat threw Clinton’s efforts aside for more war, and Jimmy Carter’s one solid accomplishment in foreign affairs was the Israeli-Egypt peace accord. In the end, though, the world’s Gordian knot remains tied, and eventually every administration realizes that it’s time to focus on other issues of more import to the US.

And according to White House sources going almost fully public on the Washington Post’s front page today, they want John Kerry to know that he has reached that point already (via Jim Geraghty):

When his aides get discouraged about the prospects for Middle East peace, Secretary of State John F. Kerry often bucks them up with a phrase: “Don’t be afraid to be caught trying.”

But as his tireless efforts to broker Israeli-Palestinian negotiations hit bottom Thursday, with Israel’s cancellation of prisoner releases that were considered crucial to keeping the talks alive, there are some around Kerry — including on his senior staff and inside the White House — who believe the time is approaching for him to say, “Enough.”

Kerry risks being seen as trying too hard at the expense of a range of other pressing international issues, and perhaps even his reputation, according to several senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity about sensitive internal and diplomatic matters.

“A point will come where he has to go out and own the failure,” an official said. For now, the official said, Kerry needs to “lower the volume and see how things unfold.”

After negotiators met through the night, Israel announced that it would not release 26 long-serving Palestinian prisoners, the final members of a group of 104 whose freedom was part of last summer’s agreement to start talks. The Israelis said they were responding to a Palestinian decision to take unilateral steps to claim greater recognition as a state by the United Nations — a step that was itself a response to additional Israeli demands and an earlier delay in the prisoner release.

So far, Kerry isn’t taking the hint. Yesterday, he talked about the progress “over the last few days,” and claimed that the only differences between the two sides related to process rather than the final status agreement:

If Kerry really believes that, then it’s no small wonder that the White House had to send its sources to the Post to get Kerry’s attention. Over the long period of years, one thing should have been clear, especially after Arafat’s final refusal — the Palestinians want Israel back, and Israel doesn’t want to give it up — and probably doesn’t want to give up much of the West Bank, either. Those aren’t “process” issues. The demand for the right of return, for instance, is an existential question for Israel, as are settlement and water issues for the Palestinians. If the Palestinians have given up on the right of return and the refusal to acknowledge Israel as a sovereign Jewish state while Israel agreed to dismantle the settlements, that’s news to the rest of us.

As Jeffrey Goldberg argues, it’s difficult to blame Kerry for trying to find a solution. People are dying as a result of the ongoing conflict, and the Israelis are our friends and a key ally; why wouldn’t we want to help find a solution? However, the US has other issues that are of more direct import to our own national interests, and having our Secretary of State so publicly mired in this standoff with no results to show from it doesn’t do much for our credibility on those other areas of foreign policy. Hillary Clinton was smart to downplay her involvement in this area.

The most striking part of this story is the fact that the White House — and Kerry’s own staff — need to go to the Post to send the message that it’s time to pack it in. That sends a bigger signal of dysfunction at State and between Kerry and Barack Obama. With Russia mobilizing on its western front, the NATO/EU response of weakness and indecision, and the Iran negotiations on its nuclear-weapons program appearing to spin out of control as a result, Kerry’s attention should be elsewhere, rather than on an attempt to salvage his reputation while failing ever more spectacularly on this conflict. When both sides are equally desirous of peace and co-existence, then the Israelis and Palestinians will find an accommodation with or without a US Secretary of State on hand to midwife it.