THE LAST time a member of the British royal family paid an official visit to the region now generally known as Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories was in 1862. For four months Queen Victoria’s eldest son and heir, later to be King Edward VII, toured part of the vast Ottoman empire and took in the Galilee, Bethlehem, Jaffa and Jerusalem where, by special permission of the Muslim authorities, he was accompanied on a tour of the holy sites of Islam. Then, escorted by the chief rabbi, he came to the Western Wall, ascended the Mount of Olives, and visited Solomon’s Pool and Rachel’s Tomb.
Over the succeeding 156 years the British Foreign Office, which advises the UK government on such matters, did not deem it appropriate for a British monarch, or even a member of the British royal family, to pay an official visit to the region. During the 70 years since the State of Israel was established, this omission from the extensive range of tours undertaken by the Queen and other members of the royal family became increasingly obvious.
The most that the Foreign Office mandarins would endorse – and that, one cannot help thinking, reluctantly – was to permit the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip, to visit his mother’s grave at a Russian Orthodox church on the Mount of Olives. Even though Princess Alice of Battenberg had been recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” for sheltering a Jewish family in her Athens home during the Second World War, it was not until 1994 that the Foreign Office permitted the prince to pay his respects, and then only on a private visit.
In 1995 the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, was allowed to attend the funer al in Israel of assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and in 2017 that of former president Shimon Peres, but again only in a private capacity. While in Israel, Charles took the opportunity of visiting his grandmother's grave on the Mount of Olives.
So ever since the State of Israel was established in 1948, the inflexible British government line had been to bar any official royal visit. When challenged on this, the rationale invariably offered was that only when lasting peace had been secured between the Jewish state and the Palestinians would such a visit be possible. In short, no peace deal, no royal visit – a position not without justification at a time when it was universally believed that the major obstacle to stability in the Middle East was the ongoing dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.
But then, on March 1, 2018, came the totally unexpected announcement that broke this royal logjam. Prince William, the Queen’s grandson and second in line to the throne, had accepted formal invitations extended to him by Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), and would this summer be making an official tour of the Middle East. He would thus become the first member of the British royal family to pay a state visit to Israel or the Palestinian territories. William will be in Israel from June 24-28, Kensington Palace announced.
What could possibly have induced the UK’s notoriously Arabist Foreign Office, even while the Israeli-Palestinian dispute remained unresolved, to endorse the idea of a senior member of the British royal family making the first ever official visit to Israel? The answer lies in a happy concatenation of circumstances.
First, in Boris Johnson − appointed UK Foreign Secretary in 2016. Immediately following the referendum in which the nation voted to leave the European Union − Britain acquired an untypical, not to say maverick, diplomatic leader. Here was a Foreign Secretary who would plow his own furrow, and take little account of long-established custom.
Johnson is an unabashed friend and supporter of Israel. During a visit in 2015, Johnson said he admired Israel for “the audacity, the bravery, the willingness to take risks, with feats of outrageous derring-do.” As for the anti-Israeli BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaign, he said he could not think of anything more foolish than to boycott “a country that, when all is said and done, is the only democracy in the region, the only place that has in my view a pluralist open society.”
Views like these, totally at odds with the traditionally cautious approach of Britain’s diplomats when discussing the Middle East, would have counted for little if the political landscape of the region had not undergone a profound sea change.
Iran has made no secret of its ambition to extend its Shi’ite Muslim empire as widely as possible in an effort to dominate the Middle East. In doing so it has embedded itself inside Iraq, is trying to establish a military network inside Syria, controls Hezbollah and thus dominates Lebanese politics, supports the Houthi rebels in Yemen, funds Hamas in Gaza, and seeks to destabilize Morocco and to undermine the Gulf states both directly, and by supporting jihadist organizations of various kinds. Over the past few years Britain’s greatest trading and political partner in the region, Saudi Arabia, under its charismatic young leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has led the opposition to Iran’s radical aims, and is supported by the moder ate Arab world. During bin Salman’s visit to Britain in March 2018, the UK made it clear that it allies itself with moderate Arab states in opposing the extremist terror organizations supported by Iran.
But Iran is also dedicated to destroying Israel – an ambition that Israel, by cutting Iran’s rogue regime down to size, is intent on thwarting − and so, perhaps uniquely in recent times, Israel’s interests and those of the moderate Arab world coincide. As a result, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are all known to be collaborating with Israel – albeit below the radar − in combatting Iran’s main instruments in its bid for political and religious dominance of the Middle East − the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen.
This radical change in the political landscape has not escaped the notice of Britain’s Foreign Office. Israel, once regarded by common consent as the main destabilizing factor in the Middle East, has become a partner in a united effort to stabilize the region.
Another factor affecting Britain’s change of mind is that 2018 marks Israel’s 70th anniversary, and an official royal visit is a logical consequence of the recognition and celebration by the British prime minister, Theresa May, and the government last November of the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas has welcomed Prince William’s intention to visit the Palestinian territories, but at the back of his, and the prince’s, mind will doubtless be his demand in March 2017 that Britain apologize for the Balfour Declaration – a demand that was swiftly rejected by the British government. When Abbas addressed the UN General Assembly the previous September he said, “We ask Great Britain, as we approach 100 years since this infamous declaration, to ... bear its historic, legal, political, material and moral responsibility for the consequences of this declaration, including an apology to the Palestinian people...”
The official UK response: “The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which Her Majesty’s Government does not intend to apologize. We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves towards peace.”
Finally, Brexit – the fact that the UK will be leaving the EU in March 2019 – has a part to play in Britain’s change of heart about a royal acknowledgement of British-Israeli friendship. Britain has long regarded Israel as a prime future trading partner, once the UK is free to negotiate its own trade deals. In anticipation, the two governments have been negotiating a new Free Trade Agreement ever since March 2017.
Theresa May has long been an enthusiastic supporter of closer UK-Israel dealings. In speaking at the Balfour Declaration dinner she said, “When some people suggest we should apologize for this letter, I say absolutely not. We are proud of our pioneer ing role in the creation of the State of Israel. We are proud to stand here today, together with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and declare our support for Israel. And we are proud of the relationship we have built with Israel. And as we mark one hundred years since Balfour, we look forward to taking that relationship even further... we want to deepen our links in areas where Israel is leading the world – in areas like agriculture, health, science, technology and innovation. Israel is the true start-up nation and we are proud to be your partner.”
And so an official visit to Israel by a senior member of the British royal family – an event that only a handful of years ago was considered wholly out of the question − is about to become a reality. Pro-Palestinian figures in the UK have seized on the recent clashes on the Gaza border to demand its cancellation, a demand that has been firmly rejected. The implications of Prince William’s visit for future relationships in the region and beyond are incalculable.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is: ‘The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016.’ He blogs at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com.