What Prince William's visit means for Israeli-British relations

It took 70 years but a member of the royal family – Prince William – will finally make an official visit to Israel.

Britain's Prince William and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge (photo credit: REUTERS)
Britain's Prince William and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Asking why the British royalty has refrained from making an official visit to Israel since its founding 70 years ago seems out of place now, precisely when such a visit is slated to take place this summer. It’s like the Jewish mother who, upon receiving a phone call from her son, asks him why he never calls.
Nevertheless, we’d like to run through some of the explanations given over the decades. By understanding why visits have been put off for so long, we can better appreciate the change of heart that has taken hold among British royals and the British government. This will make Prince William’s visit to Israel, which includes a stopover at the Palestinian Authority, all the more praiseworthy.
It might even signal a subtle change in Israel’s international status.
In 2007, leaked emails between two senior aides to Prince Charles provided a rare look at the thinking behind the turning down of repeated Israeli invitations.
In email exchanges obtained by The Jewish Chronicle between Sir Michael Peat, the prince’s principal secretary, and Clive Alderton, Peat’s deputy, it emerged that the two were concerned Israel would exploit a royal visit for political goals.
After complaining that he was being “pursued” by then-Israeli ambassador to Britain Zvi Heifetz, Alderton wrote to his boss that “acceptance [of the Israeli invitation] would make it hard to avoid the many ways in which Israel would want HRH [Prince Charles] to help burnish its international image.
“In which case, let’s agree a way to lower his [Heifetz’s] expectations.”
In this exchange, Israeli officials are portrayed as grasping and opportunistic, ready to take advantage of a royal visit for their own designs. Apparently, this disparaging view of Israel is no longer shared by British decision-makers, which is a good thing.
Another reason given for the 70-year delay is that coming to Israel and the Palestinian territories is seen by Whitehall as a diplomatic minefield. One British government source quoted by The Telegraph said that “until there is a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the royal family can’t really go there... so much politics is caught up in the land itself that it’s best to avoid those complications altogether by not going there.”
Prince Phillip came to Israel in 1994 for a Yad Vashem ceremony honoring his mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, who saved Jews during the Holocaust by opening to them the doors of her palace in Greece. In 2016, Prince Charles attended the funeral of Shimon Peres. In both cases the British government made it clear that these were private visits. In this way they were both able to incorporate a low-profile visit to Princess Alice’s grave, which is located on the Mount of Olives in east Jerusalem.
William will undoubtedly also visit the grave-site. This seems to indicate that the British government no longer believes an official visit by a member of the royal family to the Mount of Olives is problematic, which it isn’t.
This is a possible positive development in Israeli-British relations.
Another reason given for the royal family’s boycott of Israel over the years is that Israel is simply not important enough to Britain to warrant a potentially controversial visit. In contrast, visiting a country like Saudi Arabia, which is a big buyer of British arms and other services, is worth risking diplomatic fallout.
Yet, ties between Israel and Britain are significant on a number of levels. Britain exported goods and services to Israel worth $4.3 billion in 2017. Exports to Saudi Arabia are a few billion dollars higher. But Israel also has much to offer Britain that the Saudis can’t. Israel exported to Britain to the tune of $5.1b. Israel has important technological innovations and the two countries share important intelligence information as well.
Perhaps the British government, particularly in the Brexit era, sees Israel as worthy of royal attention. It could also be that a royal visit will not anger countries like Saudi Arabia, particularly at a time when the Saudis view Israel as an important ally in the fight against Iranian expansionism.
It took 70 years but a member of the royal family – Prince William – will finally make an official visit to Israel.
We welcome this as a sign that the perceived obstacles that in the past prevented such a move are no longer relevant.