In 1986, Margaret Thatcher arrived in Israel for the first official visit to the Jewish state by a serving British prime minister. Asked at a news conference why Britain’s queen had never visited, she snapped back, “I am here.”
The Iron Lady’s response got a chuckle, but it did not satisfy the Israelis.
For 70 years successive Israeli governments have tried to persuade Britain to send a Royal on an official visit — something both Buckingham Palace and Downing Street have been reluctant to do. They have feared an official visit would drag Buckingham Palace into a diplomatic quagmire and end up infuriating Britain’s Gulf Arab allies.
But next week Prince William, the heir to the British throne, will bring to an end the royal shunning of Israel, arriving Sunday in the Middle East for a visit to Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories. While members of the royal family have visited Israel before on private trips or to attend funerals of Israeli leaders, they have never made what are termed formally as official visits.
‘Occupied city’ controversy
The trip has prompted controversy because of Buckingham Palace referring to Jerusalem in the published program for the Prince’s trip as an “occupied city,” outraging Israeli politicians. Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967 and annexed it in a move that is not internationally recognized.
Israel’s Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, Zeev Elkin, has lambasted the description, posting on his Facebook page, “It’s regrettable that Britain chose to politicize the Royal visit. Unified Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel for over 3,000 years and no twisted wording of the official press release will change the reality. I’m expecting the prince’s staff to fix this distortion.”
There has been no response by Buckingham Palace to the complaint. Under international law East Jerusalem is considered “occupied” by the Israelis. But the spat over the wording of the prince’s itinerary illustrates the risks attached to the visit, say analysts.
Visit to Palestinian territories
Prince William will begin his trip to the Middle East in Jordan on June 24 and travel to Tel Aviv the following day, according to his office. He will spend three days in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ramallah in the West Bank. His visit will also mark the first time a senior member of Britain’s royal family will visit the Palestinian territories.
Visiting Israel and the Palestinian Territories is testimony to the determination of the British government to show even-handedness. Prince William will also have courtesy meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his residence and later with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
Royal spokesman Jason Knauf emphasized Buckingham Palace’s neutrality in remarks earlier this month, saying, “the non-political nature of his royal highness’s role — in common with all royal visits overseas — allows a spotlight to be brought to bear on the people of the region.” He noted, “The complex challenges in the region are of course well known.”
But Knauf added, “Now is the appropriate time and the Duke of Cambridge is the right person to make this visit.” But he did not explain why the British government, which requested the prince take the trip, thinks this is the right time for the landmark trip.
Scores of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces in recent protests at the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip as the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel is being marked. Tensions are also high with clashes taking place between Israel and Iran, with Israeli forces striking at what they see as threatening Iranian military positions in neighboring war-torn Syria.
The political temperature has remained high since U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision, announced last December, to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, breaking with the United Nations and Western allies by recognizing the city as Israel’s legitimate capital.
Some analysts in Israel and London have linked Trump’s decision to the prince’s trip, saying Britain is dispatching the heir apparent as a way to curry favor with the U.S. president and to gain goodwill in the White House. Anshel Pfeffer, a commentator for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz argues British officials are “hopeful that Netanyahu can help them in the upcoming negotiations in Washington on Britain’s crucial trade deal.”
He adds that Britain has “diminished clout on the world stage” because of Brexit and, “it must utilize whatever assets it has. And the one unique thing Britain has is a young generation of royals who are instantly recognizable across the globe.”
Other analysts see the trip as part of a broader effort by London to raise Britain’s profile as it tries to scout out new trade opportunities to replace the likely loss of trade with European countries once exits the European Union. Two-way trade between Israel and Britain last year reached $7 billion, a 25 percent increase from 2016.