MY WORD: Princely duties and kicking off a peace process

What brought the 36-year-old Duke of Cambridge, the second in line to the British throne, to Israel now, I was asked by fellow journalists.

Britain's Prince William visits an observation point on Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City, June 28, 2018 (photo credit: THOMAS COEX/POOL VIA REUTERS)
Britain's Prince William visits an observation point on Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City, June 28, 2018
As royal visits go, it was more symbolic than game-changing, but the whirlwind tour by Britain’s Prince William this week is nonetheless significant. Playing footvolley and meeting with Israeli windsurfers on the Tel Aviv beach; the soccer match with Jewish and Arab Israeli children organized by the Peres Peace Center in Jaffa; the stroll down Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard with Israel’s Eurovision winner, Netta Barzilai – these were just some of his activities in Israel.
There was also a visit to Yad Vashem, the Western Wall and the visit to the tomb of his great-grandmother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, recognized as a Righteous Gentile for hiding a Greek Jewish family during the Holocaust, and buried at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene overlooking the Mount of Olives.
If nothing else, the itinerary showed that extraordinary Yin-Yang relationship between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. As outgoing Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat likes to point out, visiting both is a great combination but beautiful beaches can be found all around the Mediterranean, whereas Jerusalem’s history and culture are unique.
What brought the 36-year-old Duke of Cambridge, the second in line to the British throne, to Israel now, I was asked by fellow journalists. After 70 years of Israeli independence, it was the first official visit by a member of the royal family, although both William’s father and grandfather paid “private visits.”
The answer to what has changed is not found in Tel Aviv’s sandy shores, leafy boulevards or the skyscrapers housing the Start-Up Nation’s entrepreneurial spirit. Nor is it found among Jerusalem’s ancient stones, in an eclectic city that has to be experienced to be understood.
Part of the reason for the prince’s visit stems from a change thousands of miles away, in Saudi Arabia.
Members of the British royal family until now have refrained from paying official visits to Israel for fear of upsetting the Arab and Muslim world, and in particular the Saudi kingdom. Today, however, it is clear that the Saudis have common interests (and concerns) with Israel and are covertly cooperating particularly in the battle against terrorism and the fight to stop Iranian aggrandizement and nuclearization. Riyadh itself, after all, has been hit by fatal rockets launched by pro-Iranian forces in Yemen. British royal acknowledgment of sovereign Israel no longer carries the threat of Saudi retribution.
There are also growing business and trade ties between Israel and the UK, including cooperation in hi-tech and anti-terrorism measures. Such relations are likely to become more important to the UK following Brexit, which could be another reason for reaching out now.
An effort has been made to make the trip seem non-political and even-handed, focusing on youth and the younger generation.
Nowhere is the changing generations more evident than in Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a.k.a. MBS) is taking over the reins (and reign) of King Salman and implementing dramatic reforms.
His Vision 2030 program aims to open Saudi society, diversify the economy, and move away from oil dependency. He is also behind the significant anti-corruption crackdown that saw members of the House of Saud detained, albeit it in the comfort of the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton.
MBS could be considered to be literally providing a driving force for change: This week, for the first time, women in the Saudi kingdom were allowed to get behind the steering wheel. (However, women are still subject to guardianship laws and a strict dress code and the many human rights activists who continue to be persecuted ironically include women who campaigned for the driving ban to be rescinded.)
At the beginning of the year, another ruling permitted women to attend major sporting events, albeit with gender-separated seating, starting with a football match in Jeddah in January. Saudi soccer fans of both genders were sorely disappointed when their country got off on the wrong foot and were soundly defeated by Russia 5:0 in the opening game in the FIFA World Cup. National pride was barely restored by the 2:1 win over Egypt, both contending for the title of leader of the Sunni Arab world.
The international football tournament is not child’s play. Israelis, for example, had been hoping that Lionel Messi would get some divine retribution (or at least poetic justice) for apparently caving in to Palestinian threats and not playing a “friendly” match in Jerusalem or visiting the Western Wall to pray for success.
Few viewers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Israel cheer goals scored by the Iranian team.
But changes are afoot: Protests have rocked Tehran and other key places in Iran, as the currency plummeted ahead of the likely re-imposition of US sanctions and also possibly as a sign that there too the younger generation seeks more freedom than the ayatollahs want to provide. Most tellingly, video footage coming out of the Islamic Republic ostensibly shows Iranian protesters chanting “Death to Palestine,” an indication that demonstrators are fed up with Iranian money being spent outside Iran, funding Hamas and Hezbollah terror among other things.
As Jerusalem Post diplomatic reporter Herb Keinon noted this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin has invited both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas to attend the World Cup final in Moscow on July 15. Netanyahu is reportedly considering the offer, kicking it around as it were, although there is no guarantee that the two guests would meet even if they were to both travel to the Russian capital.
Netanyahu last week met in Amman with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, a visit that was openly reported by both parties after his safe return. Despite the obvious tensions, both leaders know that any future arrangement with the Palestinians will affect Jordan no less, and possibly more, than Israel. This will have to be taken into account in any plan being mooted by US President Donald Trump’s team as Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner busily visit the region.
President Reuven Rivlin asked the prince to carry a message of peace to the Palestinian leader, but Abbas, 82 and in poor health, might be too old for this game. Israel is rightly wary of making a deal with Abbas without any guarantees concerning who will replace him in the not too distant future. Incidentally, there were reports of Palestinian children throwing stones at the prince’s convoy at the Jelazoun refugee camp near Ramallah, where, he yet again got to kick a football with local youths.
Prince William’s schedule, arranged by the British Foreign Office, raised diplomatic eyebrows and a storm among the Israeli public when it was revealed that his visit to his great-grandmother’s tomb in Jerusalem was classified as part of his trip to “the Occupied Palestinian Territories.” Playing soccer with kids put the trip on a far more positive footing.
I have long supported the idea by Yediot Aharonot columnist Yoaz Hendel that official visits to Jerusalem should start with the City of David archeological site rather than Yad Vashem. It puts Jerusalem as the capital in perspective. On June 26, the prince was feted at an event in Ramat Gan hosted by the British ambassador. The same evening, my sister (visiting from the UK with a lot less fuss) and I attended the gala launch of the spectacular King David light show at the Tower of David, where Mayor Barkat was the keynote speaker. Because the prince refused to meet him in Jerusalem, Barkat rejected the British offer to attend the event in Ramat Gan.
With all due respect to His Royal Highness, King David was building his capital in Jerusalem long before the Anglo- Saxons even considered Britain worth invading. According to the FIFA site, some legends have it that football is Anglo-Saxon in origin and was first played with the severed head of a vanquished Danish prince. As World Cup mania continues, it seems there is a sporting chance of the game evolving into something more peaceful after all.