WASHINGTON – “I think there is an opportunity [for peace], but for many reasons it’s not on the tips of everyone’s tongue,” Secretary of State John Kerry declared last week, expressing more than a hint of frustration ahead of a meeting with Israel’s perennial peace optimist President Shimon Peres.

“People in Israel aren’t waking up every day and wondering if tomorrow there will be peace,” Kerry complained, “because there is a sense of security and a sense of accomplishment and of prosperity.”

The United States appears to be deeply committed to the latest iteration of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Kerry has visited four times in two months. President Barack Obama called for peace in a special speech to young Israelis in Jerusalem in March.

At the World Economic Forum meeting Sunday in Jordan, Kerry announced a $4 billion investment package for the region that would massively shore up the Palestinian economy and – the theory goes – encourage the sides to see the benefits of peace.

Yet, for all the promised cash and diplomatic attention, few believe the American efforts have a real chance of success. American peace moves have long suffered from overzealousness and miscalculation. As Obama himself has suggested, American confidence in its ability to maneuver the sides into an agreement has been shaken by the failures of his own first term.

Kerry’s own analysis last week of the Israeli public’s views on peace suggests American understanding has not improved. Countless polls tell us that Israelis are not, as Kerry implied, blissfully unaware of the conflict or of the need for peace. Rather, they’re openly cynical about the ability of diplomacy to deliver an agreement that has the power to guarantee real security. Just hours after Kerry offered his interpretation of the Israeli mindset, an interview was published with Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli PM, in which he called Abbas “not a big hero” and explained that the Palestinian leader had rejected out of hand a generous Israeli offer.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no mere border dispute. It is a war over national identity, independence and long-term security. Foreigners often remark in blasé indifference that compromise is painful, as though the only obstacle is psychological pain. But in this conflict, both sides view compromise as fraught with massive risk, as a gamble with their nation’s future freedom, security, and deepest-held beliefs about itself.

For all the promised cash and diplomatic attention, few believe the American efforts have a real chance of success

It’s enough to make a pessimist out of any rational observer, and many such observers in the region are scratching their heads over the American willingness to expend apparently infinite political attention on a conflict it cannot meaningfully influence.

In America, too, there are critics. As Wall Street Journal blogger Keith Johnson has noted, “So far [Kerry] has little to show for [his efforts] other than abundant criticism from both sides in the local press. Israel right now is more concerned about the knock-on effects of a disintegrating Syria, not to mention Iran, while Palestinian leaders have plenty to worry about with Hamas.”

And so the question must be asked: Does American naïveté know no bounds? Why is the secretary of state investing so much in a conflict historically so resistant to outside influence?

To judge by Kerry’s latest visit to the region, the answer may be, counterintuitively, that US investment in the peace process is increasing because Israeli-Palestinian peace is actually declining in importance.

In the unfolding chaos of the Arab Spring, Israel has seen a marked rise in its strategic significance for the United States. Israel is politically stable, a strong supporter of US influence in the region, willing and able to carry out operations that secure US and Israeli interests without harming America’s standing among its Arab allies, and, of course, enjoys the admiration of the American public and lawmakers.

With Egypt run by the Muslim Brotherhood and American faith in the long-term stability of the Hashemite and Saudi monarchies permanently shattered by the past three years of regional turmoil, Israel may be the lone island of stability the US can count on. The Jewish state was once a pro-American bulwark against Soviet machinations in the region; it is today a similar bulwark against the dangers of the region’s internal tensions and political dysfunction.

Protesters destroy an American flag pulled down from the US Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, September 11, 2012 (photo credit: AP/Mohammed Abu Zaid)

Protesters destroy an American flag pulled down from the US Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, September 11, 2012 (photo credit: AP/Mohammed Abu Zaid)

Yet for all that, there is an exception to the increasingly positive view of Israel that pervades US strategic thinking, and it is a thorny exception: the unresolved conflict with the Palestinians.

In Obama’s Jerusalem speech in March, he offered Israelis a rather different assessment of their skepticism than that offered last week by his secretary of state.

“Today, I want to tell you – particularly the young people – that so long as there is a United States of America, [you are not alone],” Obama said.

“You made credible proposals to the Palestinians at Annapolis. You withdrew from Gaza and Lebanon, and then faced terror and rockets. Across the region, you have extended a hand of friendship, and too often have been confronted with the ugly reality of anti-Semitism. So I believe that the Israeli people do want peace, and you have every right to be skeptical that it can be achieved.”

But, he added, “[T]he Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day.”

“Israel must reverse an undertow of isolation” in the international community, he said.

Or, to paraphrase: We’re family, but you’re embarrassing us. We’re not walking away; we need each other. But we’re also not comfortable and less than completely happy about our relationship – because of the occupation.

The administration’s insistence on visible efforts toward peace has little to do with the actual likelihood of success. The alliance with Israel is more desirable than ever, but the US is also keen on not letting that alliance damage its standing in the Middle East.

The solution: a visible, energetic peace process that is seen, especially in the Arab world, to benefit the Palestinians. And if it actually leads to peace, all the better.

The alliance with Israel is more desirable than ever, but the US is also keen on not letting that alliance damage its standing in the Middle East

To that end, the administration has invested (or promised to invest) almost unlimited diplomatic prestige and a great deal of money. Both are plentiful and politically cheap in Washington. Meanwhile, the US is not doing things that are politically expensive, such as overly pressuring the sides. Any attempt to impose negotiations or confidence-building steps on Israel won’t work, administration officials now believe, and in any case won’t be worth the domestic political fallout in the US or the strain on the increasingly valuable military alliance with Israel. But neither will the administration make overly aggressive demands of the Palestinian leadership, both because they don’t believe that would work either, and because they don’t want to pay the political price with Arab states.

Instead, America is investing enough money in the process itself that the Palestinians will think twice before walking away, but maintaining enough of a distance politically, with no Clinton-like involvement on President Obama’s part in the minutiae of peacemaking, to prevent any real cost to the US if the talks fall through.

Speaking to the press at Ben Gurion Airport on Friday, Kerry’s remarks hinted that he understood clearly the Obama administration’s prioritization of the US-Israel alliance vs. Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

“I had very productive meetings with leaders in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority,” he said. “As everyone knows, Israel remains our closest ally and a partner in the region, and we will continue to work together in order to enhance regional security and stability. And we will also continue to work with the Palestinian Authority in order to help them to be able to reach and meet their aspirations.”

To be sure, Kerry genuinely hopes he will successfully bring the sides toward peace. It would be a grand prize for any diplomat, and undoubtedly a boon for Israelis and Palestinians. But even if he fails to bring peace, the process itself offers the advantage of helping to create a more comfortable political space for the US to tighten its relationship with Israel in a tumultuous region.