Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, landed in Israel on Monday, the first member of the British royal family to make an official visit to the land which Britain governed under a League of Nations mandate from 1920 to 1948.
The lack of a formal visit by a British royal – viewed by some as an unceremonious snub of the region’s only democracy – has rankled some Israelis for years.
The significance of the visit is more symbolic than substantive, even though William will be meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The Royal Air Force plane carrying William from Jordan on the first leg of his five-day visit to the region landed at Ben-Gurion Airport in the early evening. He was greeted there by Tourism Minister Yariv Levin who joked that his arrival was well timed, since his visit to the Holy Land would surely ensure England success in the World Cup.
William then drove to Jerusalem where he spent the night at the King David Hotel, the British administrative headquarters during the mandate which was bombed by the Irgun in 1946, killing 91 people.
William’s visit comes at the request of the British government, but has been characterized by British officials as completely apolitical. Since he is visiting not only Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, but also Ramallah, he will have to tread extremely carefully not to do or say anything that could be interpreted as making a political statement.
British Consul General Philip Hall told reporters in Jerusalem that while it is clear the politics in the region are difficult, “This is not a political visit. We think it is a good time to focus on the many aspects of life which are non-political.
“We know that this is not a time when we can celebrate progress in the Middle East peace [process]. We believe that engagement is at least as important in challenging times as it is in good times, and perhaps even more so,” he said.
The Consulate General in Jerusalem is in charge of William’s itinerary in east Jerusalem and Ramallah, while the British Embassy in Tel Aviv is handling the west Jerusalem and Tel Aviv aspects of the three-day visit.
The time was right for such a visit, Hall said, given Great Britain’s relationship with the Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli governments. The duke has reached the stage of his career where he is ready to engage with this region, he added.
“The duke is a young man and this is a region which is important to Britain now and in the decades to come. The duke is here to learn about it and to engage with those who will shape the future,” he said.
Over the last year, the Palestinians have called on Great Britain to apologize for its role in the creation of the State of Israel, including for issuing the Balfour Declaration.
When asked about this issue, Hall responded: “I don’t expect the Duke of Cambridge to be apologizing for Britain.”
He added that the Palestinians were ready to welcome the prince.
“The feedback I have had from Palestinians so far, directly and indirectly, has been very positive. They tell me they are pleased the duke is coming and they say his interests and engagements with Palestinians at this time is very welcome,” Hall said.
Hall was quizzed about calling the Mount of Olives part of “Occupied Palestinian Territories” in the itinerary of the trip put out last week.
“I think we are just following of decades of usage and Security Council resolutions, which will include the Old City in the occupied Palestinian territories. This consul has been responsible for Jerusalem since its creation, and so there is no change in the position there,” Hall said.
This kind of a visit, he said, was different from a governmental one and allowed the prince to have a broader experience with both Israeli and Palestinian societies.
“A royal visit like this one is very different in flavor from a ministerial visit. The duke will be able to engage with a wider range of society then is normally possible on a ministerial visit and I know his hosts are determined that he should thoroughly enjoy it,” Hall said.
William’s visit Tuesday will begin at Yad Vashem, where years ago a tree was planted in honor of his great-grandmother – Princess Alice – for saving Jews in Greece during the Holocaust.
He will meet separately with Netanyahu and Rivlin, and then travel to Jaffa to a soccer game featuring the participation of Jewish and Arab children.
In the evening he will attend a reception at the residence of the British ambassador, where he is scheduled to speak briefly.
On Wednesday morning, the prince has two events in Tel Aviv, before he goes to Ramallah and a meeting with Abbas.
William will travel to Ramallah, where he will be greeted at the Mukata, or administrative center, by an honor guard. He will meet with Abbas, who will then host him for lunch. In the evening he will attend a reception hosted by the British Consulate General, and speak there as well.
On Thursday, William is expected to visit the Mount of Olives before flying back to Britain.Gil Hoffman contributed to this report
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