July 1 is the date. From then, according to the coalition agreement that established the current Israeli government on March 17, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may hold a vote in cabinet or parliament to advance plans for the annexation of 30 per cent of the disputed West Bank.
The prospect of serious unrest following the start of this process is real. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has already announced the cessation of security co-operation between his 30,000-strong security forces and those of Israel (in practice, limited co-ordination appears to be continuing).
European leaders are worried. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas visited Israel last week to warn Israel against any moves towards unilateral annexation. Tel Aviv witnessed a stormy demonstration against the prospect last weekend.
There is reason to suspect that Israeli caution on annexation will prevail.
It is distinctly possible, however, that there is rather less here than meets the eye. Bold strategic gambits do not usually feature highly in Netanyahu's playbook. There is reason to suspect that in this case, too, caution will prevail.
The prospect of a unilateral Israeli annexation of the major settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley emerged following the unveiling of the Trump plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The US President announced the plan on January 28 at the White House.
The Trump plan envisages the eventual emergence of a demilitarised Palestinian state on roughly 70 per cent of the West Bank. In its general contours, it resembles historic Israeli proposals for the solution of the conflict, including the Allon Plan — once the official program of the now near-defunct Labour Party.
Predictably, it was immediately and unequivocally rejected by the Ramallah Palestinian Authority (and, of course, by the rival Islamist de facto administration in Gaza).
Once the formalities of the presentation of the plan and its rejection by the PA were concluded, the prospect then arose of a unilateral Israeli advance towards those elements of the plan that benefited Israel.
Netanyahu appeared initially bullish regarding this course. He announced on January 29 that a cabinet vote would be held on the annexation on February 2. No such vote took place, however.
US demurring and ambiguity over the possibility of a rapid unilateral annexation began almost immediately. On February 9, US ambassador to Israel David Friedman tweeted: "As we have stated, the application of Israeli law to the territory which the Plan provides to be part of Israel is subject to the completion of a mapping process by a joint Israeli-American committee. Any unilateral action in advance of the completion of the committee process endangers the Plan & American recognition."
The committee has since been appointed. Its deliberations continue. In the meantime, opposition to the plan, and as a result to any Israeli unilateral annexation implying acceptance of it, arose from another quarter.
West Bank settlement leaders are fiercely opposed to the prospect of Palestinian sovereignty in any form — even the most truncated — west of the Jordan River. The Trump plan, meanwhile, envisages the eventual emergence of a demilitarised Palestinian state. As one unnamed settler leader told Israeli newspaper Haaretz's Yossi Verter: "There's a sacred principle that can't be trafficked in: consent, tacit or implied, to the establishment of foreign sovereignty between the Jordan River and the sea."
Settler leaders have now come out openly against the plan. David Elhayani, who heads the Yesha Council, a body bringing together local authorities of West Bank settlements, said on Wednesday that Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, who was instrumental in formulating the plan, were not "friends of Israel." Members of the council met Netanyahu last week to outline their objections to the plan.
A secondary argument has arisen over the settler leaders' demand that they be shown the drafts of the map that the joint Israeli-American committee is drawing up.
No one seems to know the extent and nature of the annexation Netanyahu intends to propose.
The map, however, shows no signs of emerging any time soon. Weeks, and perhaps months, of work remain before its presentation, according to Israeli media reports. In the meantime, as July 1 approaches, mystery remains regarding Netanyahu's plans. No one seems to know the extent and nature of the annexation he intends to propose. While a gesture of some kind seems likely, speculation ranges from an attempt to impose sovereignty on the Jordan Valley and the main settlement blocs, to a minor, largely declarative move.
In this regard, the stances of the Likud's main coalition partners, Blue and White, are relevant. And while the coalition agreement commits Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi to support for the Trump plan, both men are clearly not in favour of a swift, far-reaching and unilateral annexation.
The international context has changed, too. The coronavirus pandemic, followed by the outbreak of mass protests in the US, leaves the US administration with little remaining bandwidth to deal with a possible renewed crisis in the Middle East.
The concerns of Arab states aligned with the US, including Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, have been made clear to Washington. Netanyahu, like other global leaders, is also preoccupied with averting economic disaster in the wake of the pandemic. Israeli media reports suggest the administration has quietly asked for surprises to be avoided. The Israeli Prime Minister, it should be remembered, is also busy with his legal defence on corruption charges.
There is a deeper reason to suppose that a sudden major move on Netanyahu's part in this arena is unlikely. It would not be in keeping with his modus operandi.
Netanyahu comes across in his speeches and in his books as an ideological, even doctrinaire politician. Such a style is often associated with a love of the grand gesture, of bold, paradigm-shifting policy choices. In practice, however, Netanyahu is not like that. His record reveals a cautious, incremental, managerial approach to governance. Indeed, one of the reasons for his continued electoral success is the sense that Israelis have that when he is in the Prime Minister's office, things tend to stay quiet.
Israeli media reports suggest the Trump administration has quietly asked for surprises to be avoided.
Contrast his record since 2009 with the stormy decade that preceded him. Between 1999 and 2009, under Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, Israelis experienced an abortive attempt to bring the conflict with the Palestinians to a decisive, negotiated conclusion (at Camp David in 2000).
This was followed by a four-year low-intensity war in the West Bank and Gaza, a painful uprooting and unilateral withdrawal from the latter area, a semi-conventional war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, the bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, and a huge punitive operation into Gaza in 2009.
In the subsequent 1½ decades, a single major operation into Gaza has taken place (in 2014). There has been diplomatic and military action, to be sure, but it has been of the quiet and discreet kind intended to chip away at enemy capacities, to shift perceptions slowly or quietly to draw former enemies closer via shared interests. That is Netanyahu's way in government. A major lunge at sovereignty in 30 per cent of the West Bank, apparently against the partial or total opposition of the US, the Europeans, coalition partners, tacit Arab allies and even (for different reasons) the West Bank settlers would be out of character.
Some Israeli media reports have noted that as a result of his managerial and incremental style, Netanyahu lacks a major "legacy" policy move.
In this telling, an effort at setting Israel's permanent eastern border could fill the gap. The great Israeli prime ministers — David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin — are each associated with a series of major policy initiatives.
The declaration of statehood, the management of the war of independence, the gathering of more than a million immigrants and the acquisition of a nuclear capacity are the legacy of the former. The insurgency against British rule, the achievement of peace with Israel's largest Arab neighbour, ensuring the integration of immigrants from North Africa and West Asia and destroying Saddam Hussein's nuclear ambitions were among the major achievements of the latter.
Netanyahu's record reveals a cautious, incremental, managerial approach to governance.
This, however, seems to misunderstand the incumbent Israeli premier. Netanyahu's moves are not devoid of a strategic conception. He regards Zionism and Israel as engaged in a long war to establish and solidify the structures of Jewish sovereignty against a protracted Arab and pan-Islamic counter-effort to destroy them. The Palestinians, in this view, are only a relatively minor or subaltern element of the larger effort. This is a conflict not fought out only, or primarily, by kinetic means. Rather, it is one in which the full resources of each society are engaged — economic, diplomatic, cultural and military.
Victory comes in such a contest not through a single diplomatic masterstroke or a devastating blow. Rather, it is gained in careful, incremental steps.
Bold tactical moves are certainly part of Netanyahu's repertoire. Sudden strategic moves seeking to change the picture overnight, however, in the face of international and domestic opposition, would be quite out of character.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a Ginsburg/Ingerman Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum.