Britain’s Prince William landed in Israel early on Monday evening, kicking off the first-ever official visit by a member of the royal family since the British Mandate ended and the State of Israel was founded in 1948.
William, the second in line to the British throne, was welcomed at Ben Gurion Airport by Tourism Minister Yariv Levin and MK Amir Ohana, both members of the ruling Likud party.
The Duke of Cambridge’s three-day stay, ending the royal family’s seven-decade unofficial boycott of Israel, is likely to be full of historical symbolism, though it was initially billed as a celebration of the unprecedentedly good bilateral ties between London and Jerusalem.
However, the trip is taking place under a minor cloud of controversy, as Kensington Palace’s official itinerary states that the prince’s visit to Jerusalem’s Old City — where he is likely to stop at the Western Wall and Muslim and Christian holy sites — will take place in the “Occupied Palestinian Territories.”
“We will receive today the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, for the historic first visit in Israel of a representative of the British royal family,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier Monday at the start of the Likud faction meeting.
“I must say this is not exactly true because there is a representative, his great-grandmother Princess Alice, one of the Righteous of the Nations who saved Jews in Greece during the Second World War and requested to be buried in Jerusalem,” Netanyahu added.
Addressing Likud lawmakers, he joked that he would have invited all of the party’s MKs to meet the prince, but “it is a little cramped at the Prime Minister’s Residence, so we will welcome him on your behalf and on behalf of all the citizens of Israel — welcome!”
William and his relatively small entourage will spend the night at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel — which the pre-state Zionist underground militia Irgun bombed in 1946, killing scores of British soldiers. At the time, the hotel hosted the central offices of the British Mandatory authorities of Palestine.
On Tuesday, the Duke of Cambridge will visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. Accompanied by Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev, he will visit the museum, participate in a memorial ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance and visit the Children’s Memorial.
During the course of the visit, he is scheduled to meet with Paul Alexander and Henry Foner, two survivors of the Kindertransport, which before the outbreak of World War II helped bring thousands of Jewish children from across Europe to Britain.
“The Duke is interested in the contemporary relationship and the future. There will be a certain amount of history, but it’s not the focus of the visit,” UK Ambassador to Israel David Quarrey told reporters Thursday. “He wants to get under the skin of this country. He wants get to know the country and its people.”
Around noon, the prince will meet Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, at their official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street — named after Lord Arthur Balfour, the UK foreign secretary who in 1917 paved the way for Israel’s creation by expressing support for the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
The next stop will be the President’s Residence for a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin, before William travels to the Neve Golan Stadium in Jaffa to watch — and likely participate in — a soccer match between Jewish and Arab Israeli children organized by The Equalizer and the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation.
Ready to welcome His Royal Highness Prince William, Duke of Cambridge… pic.twitter.com/FVDUeIKn3p
— Reuven Rivlin (@PresidentRuvi) June 25, 2018
He will then attend an “event in central Tel Aviv” with Mayor Ron Huldai, about which organizers did not publish more information due to security concerns.
Later on Tuesday evening, the royal visitor will speak at a reception at Ambassador Quarrey’s Ramat Gan residence. Netanyahu is set to attend.
On Wednesday morning, he will attend a yet-unspecified “cultural event” in Tel Aviv, before meeting with young Israelis at the city’s Beit Ha’ir Museum. He is also set to meet with Israel’s Eurovision Song Contest winner Netta Barzilai.
The museum visit will conclude the part of the trip billed as taking place in Israel.
“He’ll be here to see a little bit of the country and to get to meet some of the people here,” Quarrey said. “And also to get a flavor of Israel, to see what’s happening here, some of the extraordinary successes in technology, some of the great culture here.”
On Wednesday at about 1:30 p.m., Prince William will meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in his Muqata headquarters in Ramallah for a bilateral meeting followed by lunch.
“We know this is not a time when we can celebrate progress in the Middle East peace process. But we believe that engagement is at least as important in challenging times as it is in good times — perhaps event more so,” UK Consul General in Jerusalem Philip Hall told reporters earlier on Monday.
“We know the politics are difficult, but this is not a political visit, and we think it is a good time to focus on the many aspects of life which are not political,” he added.
On Wednesday afternoon, William will attend various “events focusing on the issues facing refugee communities, opportunities to celebrate Palestinian culture, music and food, and a chance to meet a number of young Palestinians,” according to Hall.
“In particular, there will be a cultural event where he’ll see traditional music and dance, taste traditional food and see some local crafts,” he added.
On Wednesday evening, William will address a reception at the UK’s Jerusalem Consulate, where he will meet “a range of people from across society in the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” according to Hall.
“The Duke will undoubtedly see and hear about the many challenges facing Palestinians,” he told reporters at the UK Consulate in East Jerusalem.
“But he’ll also see many of the positive and vibrant aspects of Palestinian life, which those traveling in and out for discussions about Israeli-Palestinian relations all too often miss. Ramallah has a buzz to it, and I think the Duke will get to feel that.”
On Thursday morning, William will receive a briefing from a viewing point at the Mount of Olives from a member of the consulate. He will then proceed to the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Mary Magdalene to visit the grave of his great-grandmother.
Princess Alice, who saved a Jewish family during the Holocaust, was interred there in the late 1980s.
Her grandson, William’s father, Prince Charles, visited the grave in October 2016, during his trip to Israel to attend the funeral of president Shimon Peres.
Later on Thursday, William is expected to tour several religious sites in Jerusalem’s Old City, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, and the Western Wall, though these visits have not been confirmed.
That those visits are taking place under the auspices of the UK consulate in Jerusalem, which is in charge of London’s relations with the Palestinian Authority, has garnered some criticism from Israeli officials, with Jerusalem Minister Ze’ev Elkin accusing the second-in-line to the throne of “politicizing” his visit to the region.
“United Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel for 3,000 years and no distortion in the tour itinerary can change that reality,” Elkin said last week.
But Quarrey, the UK’s ambassador in Tel Aviv, defended describing Jerusalem’s Old City as being part of the “Occupied Palestinian Territories” in the prince’s itinerary.
“All the terminology that was used in the program was consistent with years of practice by British governments. It’s consistent with British government policy,” he told reporters during a briefing at his Ramat Gan residence on Thursday.
“The Duke is not a political figure,” Quarrey went on. “He’ll be here to see a little bit of the country and to get to meet some of the people here. And also to get a flavor of Israel, to see what’s happening here, some of the extraordinary successes in technology, some of the great culture here. And he really wants to get under the skin of the country.”
On Thursday, in the early afternoon, the Duke will depart from Ben Gurion International Airport en route to London on a special flight.