Prior to the UAE-Israeli normalisation agreement, when speculation over annexation of the occupied West Bank was rife, Israel's Agriculture Minister Alon Schuster spoke in favour of "cultivating settlements"; his enthusiasm for breaking international law was shared by Defence Minister Benny Gantz. Such a move, according to Schuster and Gantz, would benefit both Palestinians and Israelis in the occupied West Bank, ostensibly to "enable coexistence in accordance with the Trump plan."
Upon announcing the normalisation deal, settler leaders vented their anger against what was seen as duplicity by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who insisted that annexation was still on the cards and the agreement with the UAE merely postponed this violation of the law.
Gantz is now seeking to appease the settler leaders by promoting the construction of 5,000 homes in the occupied West Bank, falling back on what is already an even more normalised violation in terms of how the international community classifies and reacts to the theft of Palestinian land by Israel in this way.
For Gantz, settlement building is one way to endear himself to the settler leaders; the latter view the current freeze on construction as being "held hostage to a diplomatic situation." Postponement of its annexation plans works well for Israel, as long as the international community falls in line with its agenda. If Gantz does appease the settlers by building more homes, there is little of note in terms of this clashing with Netanyahu's expansionist agenda. Annexation, as the Israeli prime minister said, can come at a later date, and Palestinians, unlike settler leaders and their ilk, remain permanently hostage not only to the normalisation agreement between Israel and the UAE, but to every proposal that falls within the UN's parameters of dialogue and negotiation.
The Palestinian Authority has already fallen back to its previous rhetoric of reaching an agreement with Israel based on existing resolutions and the two-state compromise, despite an attempt to portray different governing objectives when annexation was first publicised. While the PA is not taking the temporary halt as a reversal of the plan, Palestinian leaders are still scrambling for support within an international community that has welcomed the normalisation agreement as a diplomatic breakthrough that can influence two-state diplomacy.
Moreover, Israel knows that it has extended the already stretched parameters of what is considered acceptable in terms of international consensus and agreements. The international community has repeatedly spoken out against Israeli colonial settlement expansion, yet at the same time it has singled out annexation as the bigger violation instead of taking into account the ongoing process of expansion and formalisation through building illegal settlements. With this distinction, Israel knows that it can play both cards well, as it did on other occasions such as the shift from major aerial bombardments of the Gaza Strip to intermittent bombing which barely raises the slightest international concern and gets little or no coverage in the mainstream media.
For Palestinians, the difference between annexation and settlement expansion is a fine line which ultimately yields the same result: more loss of land and increased forced displacement, neither of which will prompt a different response from the UN. Settlement expansion is a political act which continues to have disastrous political consequences for Palestinians. Upon what land will the hypothetical semblance of a Palestinian state be built, if Israel colonises all Palestinian territory? The UN's humanitarian agenda must not only be challenged, but also has to be opposed and replaced with a focus on justice and the Palestinian people's rights to their land. Just as rhetoric about settlements has led to their normalisation, similar rhetoric will eventually normalise Israel's annexation plans.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.