Reality Check: Better late than never

This lack of an official royal visit has been no oversight but rather a deliberate snub to the Jewish state on the part of the British Foreign Office.

June 10, 2018 22:01
3 minute read.
Reality Check: Better late than never

Britain's Prince William attends the first annual Royal Foundation Forum held at Aviva in London, February 28, 2018 . REUTERS/Chris Jackson/Pool. (photo credit: REUTERS/CHRIS JACKSON)

At a time when czarist Russia was characterized by violent and murderous antisemitism, encouraged from the top by Nicholas II, his royal relatives in Britain were famously noted for their pro-Jewish sentiments.

Queen Victoria had a very close relationship with her Jewish-born prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, and friendship with Sir Moses Montefiore, while Nicholas’s uncle Bertie – better known as King Edward VII on succeeding the crown after Victoria – surrounded himself with wealthy Jewish pals. Edward’s friendship with financier Ernest Cassel led some to dub the king’s palace outside of London “Windsor Cassel.”

Later, during the Holocaust, Princess Alice of Battenberg, the mother of Philip, the duke of Edinburgh and husband of the current Queen Elizabeth, volunteered to hide a Jewish family in her Athens palace, using her deafness to frustrate Gestapo questioning after the Germans became suspicious of her activities. For saving Rachel and Tilde Cohen, she was recognized in 1993 by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations. A year later Philip came to Jerusalem to plant a tree in her honor at Yad Vashem and visit her crypt at the Church of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives.

And yet, despite this family history and the prominent role of Britain in Zionist history, from the Balfour Declaration of 1917 to the British Mandate, no member of the British royal family has paid an official visit to the Jewish state. Philip’s visit to Jerusalem was regarded as private, as was Prince Charles’s attendance at the funerals of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, with Charles also using the latter as an opportunity to pay homage at his grandmother’s grave.

This lack of an official royal visit has been no oversight but rather a deliberate snub to the Jewish state on the part of the British Foreign Office, which has always used royal trips to further British interests or reward friendly nations. As the most widely traveled head of state in history, partly the result of her extraordinary longevity, Elizabeth has been to all parts of the globe, including the Middle East. A quick look at her past travels includes state visits to pre-revolutionary Iran, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan and Turkey, with Israel conspicuously absent from the list.

SO THE visit later this month to Israel by Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and direct heir to the British throne, is a watershed moment in Israel-UK relations and a fitting recognition on the part of the British Foreign Office that after 70 years of independence, Israel can no longer be treated as an aberration.

With Britain’s place on the world stage looking increasingly insecure, as the country struggles to come to term with the ramifications of Brexit, the United Kingdom is right to seek to bolster ties with countries it previously treated with a certain hands-off approach.

Although there are still strong disagreements between London and Jerusalem over key topics such as the future of the Iranian nuclear accord, Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories, the status of Jerusalem and recent events in the Gaza Strip, ties between the two countries have been steadily improving over the past few years.

While in the past, security ties between the two countries was something to be kept well away from the spotlight, last year the British Navy flagship HMS Ocean docked in Haifa Port, with Commodore James Morely announcing: “We are here today as a friend of Israel and a visible demonstration of NATO’s continued commitment to Israel.” At this year’s Independence Day celebrations, RAF jets joined the traditional Israel Air Force flyover, and there have also been publicly announced joint IAF-RAF helicopter rescue exercises off the coast of Israel.

Trade between the two countries is booming, with bilateral trade reaching a record $9 billion in 2017, compared to $7b. the previous year, and the United Kingdom is Israel’s second-largest export market after the United States. Israel is even on the list as one of 10 countries with which Britain is looking to sign a new bilateral free trade agreement in the wake of Brexit.

Unlike the national hysteria surrounding the canceled visit of the Argentinean soccer team for a friendly international, and with all due respect to the soccer god Lionel Messi, William’s trip to Israel really is an important event. It puts to bed once and for all a sore point in Anglo-Israel relations and rectifies an omission that should have been addressed many years previously.

All that is left now is to hope our politicians brush up on their etiquette before the prince arrives.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.

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