Prince William in Israel: A Diplomatic Achievement or a Courtesy Visit?

The visit of the British prince is a historic event, but it is doubtful whether it marks a real change in the positions of the royal family.

Prince William - Israel is suddenly an attractive destination (Photo - Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Prince William, second in succession to the British throne, will begin an official three-day visit to Israel on the occasion of the country’s 70th anniversary and the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. The question is, why this sudden change in the long standing policy of the royal family to not set foot on Israeli soil and what has brought this about now?

The arrival of the heir to the throne was with the Queen’s very own blessing, which carries much more meaning than just an official state visit: the decision to establish the Jewish home in Palestine with British support.

The prince’s visit was accompanied by statements by British Prime Minister Theresa May, who noted that the British government would also celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, adding that she was proud of Britain’s role in establishing the Jewish national home.

Queen Elizabeth’s Husband Prince Philip, visited Israel in 1994 for a private visit to visit his mother’s grave on the Mount of Olives. Prince Charles, the Crown Prince and Queen’s son, also made unofficial visits to the region in order to pay tribute to Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin at their funerals.

While not official visits, these visits give a glimpse into the reason why no representative of the British royal family has come to Israel since the establishment of the state.

Rabin and Peres were regarded by many in the world as symbols of reconciliation and peace. The honor Prince Charles bestowed upon them on their last journey was mainly out of identification with the way and ideals these men symbolized, not necessarily out of support for Israel.

The British Daily Mail in November 2017 exposed a letter written by the Prince Charles in 1986 in which he said that he had begun to read the Koran, and that he believed that the reason for the instability in the Middle East lies in the influx of foreign Jews to the region. He also spoke about the Jewish lobby and about the fact that the presidents of the United States must stand firm against it.

To these astonishing remarks one must add remarks made by former British ambassador to Israel Simon McDonald, who said that an official visit by a representative of the royal family in Israel, despite Israel’s wishes, will take place only after the establishment of peace.

On the other hand, representatives of the royal family, the Queen herself included, did not refrain from conducting official visits to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates, despite these countries’ poor human rights and civil right records.

It is not unusual for the royal family to first “test” the situation in a location considered problematic. In the case of Ireland for example, the Queen first sent representatives of the royal family to examine the reactions to these visits. Only after a few years did she arrive herself. This led to normalization of visits by the royal family in Ireland, which is likely to happen in Israel as well.

In addition, proper relations between countries allow visits by presidents, or in this case representatives of the royal family, on a regular basis without surprises or excitement. The very visit of the prince is a large and unusual event, which indicates a less normal relationship between the two countries.

A Mixed History

In the conflict between Arabs and Jews, it appears that the royal family purports to present an image of seeking peace and justice, and is therefore unwilling to visit Israel as long as the parties have not reached a solution. But there are those who claim that the roots of the unwillingness to visit Israel run deeper than that.

The British “Sun” newspaper published a video showing the current Queen Elizabeth, when she was seven years old, along with her mother and sister (and with the encouragement of the Queen’s uncle, King Edward VIII), giving the Nazi salute. Edward, according to many historians, was considered a supporter of the Nazi regime. He himself met Hitler in 1937 in Germany (Edward later abdicated, wanting to marry an American divorcee). Another infamous incident was with Prince Harry who wore a Nazi costume and his picture was published in the media.

This suspicion is compounded by the fact that the royal family has German roots. Their last name until 1917 was Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a German name, before it was changed to the British name Windsor.

On the other hand, there is the story of familymember Princess Alice, granddaughter of Queen Victoria who was born in 1885. In 1903 Alice married Prince Andrew of Greece (her son, Philip, later became the Duke of Edinburgh and, as stated, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II).

During World War II, Princess Alice worked for the Red Cross in occupied Athens. The princess was torn between two worlds: her daughters lived in Germany and her sons-in-law served in the German army, while her son Prince Philip was drafted into the British army.

During the war, Princess Alice hid Jewish friends of the family – mother Rachel, her son and daughter Matilda – and later awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations. She is today buried, at her own request, on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. During Peres’ funeral, Prince Charles secretly went to visit her grave, since in his view, the Mount of Olives is a disputed place.

Now, for the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel, an official representative of the royal family arrives in Israel. Prince William, who is enormously popular in the kingdom and abroad, and is widely regarded as the true heir to the Queen (not his father, Prince Charles). A visit of such is considered a real statement, but one has to wait and see whether this visit marks a change in the position of the royal family.

Preparations for the visit were accompanied by calls for its cancellation by left-wing politicians in Britain, especially members of the Labor Party and pro-Palestinian activists, in protest of recent events along the Gaza border. However, the spokesman for the palace announced that the visit would take place as planned.

During the visit, the duke will visit Yad Vashem and meet Holocaust survivors who fled to England during World War II, members of the Kindertransport – Jewish children in Europe who were sent to Britain to escape the Nazis between 1938 and 1940. Accompanying him on his tour will be the British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. He is expected to meet with the prime minister at his Jerusalem residence and from there to the President’s Residence. Finally, William will participate in a soccer match between Jewish and Arab children in Jaffa and will meet with the Mayor of Tel Aviv together with Israeli entrepreneurs.

On Wednesday, Prince William is expected to visit Judea and Samaria, Ramallah (or, according to the British “occupied Palestinian territories”) with Abu Mazen, and then travel to the Mount of Olives to view the Old City from a Palestinian perspective. The Prince is also expected to visit the Western Wall and the grave of his great-grandmother, Princess Alice.

In regards to the British describing Jerusalem as occupied “Palestinian” territory, Israeli officials said they did not view this favorably, but “since we want the visit to succeed, we will not turn this into a crisis.”

However, Minister for Jerusalem Affairs Ze’ev Elkin said, “It is regrettable that Britain chose to politicize the Royal visit. Unified Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel for over 3,000 years and no distortion by the official press release will change the reality. I’m expecting the prince’s staff, who emphasized throughout the visit, that the visit will be a-political without bias towards one side or another, to correct this distortion.”

British Ambassador to Israel David Quarry noted that the duke is anticipating the visit and wants to get a feel of Israeli culture, and that this is not a political visit. According to the ambassador, the purpose of the visit is to celebrate the partnership between Israel and Britain, which is the best shape ever. “We hope we can show this to the Duke and strengthen these ties in the future,” he added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that this is a historic visit and that William will be warmly welcomed. This announcement was made in March, after the announcement of the Prince’s visit and about a week after Trump announced the transfer of the American Embassy to Jerusalem.

A Diplomatic Renaissance

The royal family sees, as does the rest of the world, how over the last two years leaders from all over the world have been making pilgrimages to Jerusalem and inviting senior Israeli officials for reciprocal visits. Among them are the leader of China, the Prime Minister of India, the presidents of Russia, Japan, South Korea, African countries and Central and South America, and of course the American President Donald Trump and his deputy Mike Pence.

Along with Trump’s support and Netanyahu’s leadership, we are witnessing a renaissance in Israel’s diplomatic relations.From the induction of the US embassy in Jerusalem (a move that will be copied by many others), to the participation of the prime minister in the victory parade of World War II in Russia alongside Putin and the extraordinary coalition that was created between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

In 2017, Prime Minister Netanyahu paid official visits to China and India, and only recently flew to Africa and Latin America, where he was eagerly received. Israel’s strength also rises economically, as part of the flourishing diplomatic relations and international trade.

Israel has become a regional power and at the moment it is only growing stronger. With this strengthening and diplomatic renaissance, the princes also come to our little country.

*(Translated from Mida.org.il Hebrew)

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Daniela Traub served as Israel’s Deputy Ambassador to Ireland and is currently completing her Master’s degree in Diplomacy and Security at Tel Aviv University

[Find this article interesting? You can find more in depth articles on Israel and the Middle East @en.mida.org.il]

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