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Twenty years ago, Israeli and Palestinian leaders signed the Oslo accords on the White House lawn, opening the “peace process” that the US is trying to reinvigorate. Yet the Obama administration has failed to learn the lesson of the past two decades: keeping human rights violations off the peace talks agenda is a losing strategy. In this respect, Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent shuttle diplomacy has actually reached new lows.

Kerry, according to news reports and other sources, met with European leaders in Vilnius on September 7 and urged them to postpone new rules that would ensure Israel could not use European Union funds to support West Bank settlements.

But European sources say the rules are required by the EU’s own law, which incorporate its obligations under international law not to “recognize” illegal actions by other countries. Allowing EU aid to be used to benefit Israel’s settlements could breach that law. Kerry contended that Europe’s attempt to prevent itself from violating international law could complicate the peace process.

This isn’t the first time. The U.S., in the name of promoting negotiations, has consistently applied pressure to block accountability for rights violations, from vetoing Security Council resolutions critical of Israeli violations to calling on Palestine not to join the International Criminal Court – even at times when the peace process has been practically moribund.

Israel’s official position is that the primary responsibility for Palestinians’ human rights in occupied territories lies with the Palestinian Authority. Yet Israel allows Palestinian Authority security services to operate in less than 20 percent of the West Bank.

In the areas of the West Bank where Israel has exclusive control of security, its justice systems finds 99.74 percent of Palestinian defendants guilty of “security offenses,” but closes more than 90 percent of Palestinian complaints of settler violence without even filing an indictment. Only six Israeli soldiers have been convicted of unlawfully killing Palestinians since 2000, and none served more than seven months in jail.

The U.S. has also failed to address abuses, including credible allegations of torture, by the Palestinian Authority. U.S. diplomats in Jerusalem told me that the U.S. would oppose Palestinian efforts to sign human rights treaties. This has been an option since the majority of UN member states recognized Palestinian statehood in 2012 and would make it easier to hold the Palestinian Authority to account for abuses. But the U.S. diplomats I spoke to said such a move would be “unhelpful to final status negotiations.”

The consequences of the misguided U.S. strategy have been devastating – and self-defeating. Human rights violations and lack of accountability simply stoke tensions and prevent the emergence of conditions required for successful peace talks. Whenever the Israeli authorities confiscate another farmer’s land or security forces kill or injure another civilian without meaningful redress the peacemakers’ job becomes more difficult.

The Obama administration persists in calling settlements “illegitimate” on the basis that they prejudice negotiations, when they are the underlying cause of a host of abuses. Instead of taking a strong stand to help move the peace process along, the U.S. articulates a vague, unbalanced position that Israeli bulldozers move right through. Even as the U.S. is trying to breathe new life into the peace process, Israel has not ceased to demolish more Palestinians’ homes, unlawfully and often on lands it has allocated to settlements. More than 750 people have been displaced this year alone.

But Secretary Kerry went even further last week when he pressured other countries to break their own laws and international obligations so they can continue supporting Israeli settlements.

Europe has given hundreds of millions of euros to fund research and development and other joint projects with Israel. Yet the EU had negotiated the funding agreements badly, and found itself unable to stop Israel from using European prizes, grants, and loans in settlements. The EU did not intend to support settlements, but sometimes unintended consequences can become the defining element of a policy.

In an effort to continue cooperating with Israel without breaking international law, and its own, Europe came up with an obvious solution: when the next round of funding begins in 2014, Israel should agree that it won’t use its euros to support illegal activities in the occupied territories.

In response, the Israeli government went on a diplomatic offensive, misrepresenting Europe’s attempt to protect itself from funding potential war crimes as “sanctions” against settlements that could encourage Palestinian “intransigence” in peace negotiations. Instead of supporting a viable option that remained within the bounds of international law, Kerry appears to be pushing the European Union to maintain the status quo and allow its money to be used for illegal settlements in order to promote peace.

Kerry has been praised for his tenacity and success at bringing Israeli and Palestinian leaders back to the negotiating table. But instead of focusing myopically on negotiations, the U.S. should ask itself whether its two-decade-old strategy of sacrificing rights for the sake of keeping a conversation going has made matters worse. At the very least, it hasn’t been a successful approach to secure Middle East peace. It’s past time to try something new.

Bill Van Esveld is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch based in Jerusalem.

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