In what would be an historic first formal visit, a senior member of the British royal family is planning an official trip to Israel in 2017, a tour that would coincide with the 100-year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, according to a UK Jewish community leader.
While royals have visited Israel in the past, no representative of the British monarchy has ever come to country on an official “royal tour.” An official royal visit to Jewish state would be the first in the Jewish state’s 68-year existence, during which nearly every other country on earth has been visited by a representative of the Crown.
The community leader said the details of the visit were not yet finalized but that the trip would be led by a senior member of the royal family.
While the visit would coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, issued by foreign secretary Lord Arthur Balfour in 1917, it is unclear whether the trip would officially mark the document’s centenary. Instead, the visit may be formally billed as a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jerusalem in which General Allenby lead the British Army to a victory over the Ottomon Empire.
The British Embassy in Israel could neither confirm or deny that a trip was being considered, saying, “Any planned tours will be announced in due course in the usual way.” The Israeli Foreign Ministry said it had not received a request or correspondence regarding a royal visit, but a spokesman told The Times of Israel that 2017 trips had not yet been finalized and it was possible that a visit is being planned.
The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Jonathan Arkush, said he warmly welcomed the news but was not surprised by the move. “The board has been making discreet but firm representations for some time and it seems they have borne fruit,” he said.
Speaking to The Times of Israel last month after he accompanied Prince Charles to the September funeral of former Israeli president Shimon Peres, Arkush said it was an “open secret” that the UK Jewish community was actively working to encourage a royal visit. “We are pushing hard for a royal visit. It’s not about time. It’s past time for a royal visit,” he said.
‘Best to avoid those complications’
Prince Charles’s attendance at Peres’s funeral and the funeral of slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994 were not considered official royal visits and did not include diplomatic meetings. Nor was a brief 1994 visit by his father, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, to attend a ceremony commemorating his mother, Alice of Battenberg, who is buried on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives.
Official visits by royals to foreign countries are sanctioned by the British government. Despite numerous invitations over the years, no government has approved such a visit to Israel since the end of the British mandate and the establishment of the state in 1948.
“As I said to Prince Charles [at Peres’s funeral], it’s lovely that you came for two funerals — Rabin’s funeral and this funeral. Perhaps now, could you come for a happy occasion?” Arkush said last month. “Prince Charles is not the decider. He smiled. He nodded. He’s a professional up to his fingertips. It’s not his decision.”
On the sidelines of a climate change conference in Paris last December, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly invited Prince Charles to make an official visit to Israel, UK daily The Telegraph reported at the time, but this was reportedly swiftly rejected.
“Until there is a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the royal family can’t really go there,” a British government source told the newspaper. “In Israel so much politics is caught up in the land itself that it’s best to avoid those complications altogether by not going there.”
Israeli officials have bristled at royals’ unwillingness to come to the Jewish state, while they appear to have no qualms about visiting authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
In 2007 an aide to Prince Charles warned in an internal email leaked to the press that a visit by the prince would likely be used by Israel to try to boost its global standing.
“Safe to assume there is no chance of this visit ever actually happening?” deputy private secretary Clive Alderton wrote to private secretary Sir Michael Peat. “Acceptance would make it hard to avoid the many ways in which Israel would want [Prince Charles] to help burnish its international image.”
‘The beginning of diplomatic relations’
InJuly 2015, at a ceremony welcoming new UK ambassador David Quarrey to Israel, President Reuven Rivlin issued an informal invite for the British monarch to come to Israel while making direct reference to the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration’s signing.
“During your term here, we will celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, which perhaps marks the beginning of the diplomatic relations between Israel and Britain,” Rivlin told Quarrey referring to the November 1917 document that set out the UK government’s support for establishing a national homeland for Jews in Palestine.
“I also want to also convey my warmest regards to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and extend to her an invitation to visit our region,” Rivlin said.
While an official royal trip would coincide with the anniversary, it is a connection that the UK may want to avoid. Ahead of the centenary, Israelis and Palestinians have already launched rival campaigns over the legacy of the Declaration, each interpreting the document’s historical importance according to their respective narrative.
Top officials in Ramallah have vowed to sue the British government over what they call the “notorious” document in which Britain gave “without any right, authority or consent from anyone, the land of Palestine to another people,” as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said at the United Nations in September.
In Jerusalem, the Balfour Declaration is being celebrated as “one of the earliest statements by a major international actor to recognize the Jewish people’s rights to self-determination in their historic homeland,” as the Israeli embassy declared in a statement last week.
In September, UK Prime Minister Theresa May highlighted the fact that the UK and Israel will soon mark the 100-year anniversary of the “UK’s support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people,” in the signing of the Declaration.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.