David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).
Britain's Prince William stands alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara Netanyahu and UK Ambassador to Israel David Quarrey (R) during a reception at the British ambassador's residence in the Israeli town of Ramat Gan, east of Tel Aviv, on June 26, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / Sebastian Scheiner)
In the first public speech of his trip on Tuesday night, Britain’s Prince William offered a strikingly warm endorsement of “remarkable,” “vibrant” Israel, paying the peerless compliment of favorably likening our country to his.
His meetings with young Israelis thus far, he said, served as “a reminder of how much we have in common — two open societies which thrive on innovation, diversity, talent, and excellence.”
Speaking at a reception at the residence of the British ambassador outside Tel Aviv, the prince hailed the record levels of bilateral trade and investment, the cooperation in science and technology, and, in a very carefully worded phrase, the “work we do together to keep our people safe.”
In short, he declared, ties between Israel and the UK “have never been stronger.”
All of this is true — the relationship between the former rulers of mandatory Palestine and the revived Jewish state that succeeded them are indeed warm and robust, despite all the complications regarding the still-disputed areas of that territory that will be the focus of subsequent parts of the prince’s itinerary this week.
But warm ties, high trade, wide sci-tech cooperation, and shared security challenges would not, in themselves, have sufficed to shatter the unofficial 70-year boycott of modern Israel that the royal family from the land that produced the Balfour Declaration had maintained. Prince William, second in line to the throne, would not have been dispatched to do what his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, has never done, and what his father, Prince Charles, has only done unofficially. That the first official royal visit to Israel is under way, and under way precisely now, people involved in this trip privately acknowledge, is in large part also a function of change elsewhere in the region.
Britain cherishes its longstanding relationships with others in this part of the world — notably including the Jordanians, the Saudis, and others in the Gulf. The royal family has played a central symbolic role in strengthening those ties, with innumerable reciprocal visits. Those royal visits have gone ahead — and high-volume trade relations, including colossal arms sales, have been maintained through the decades — despite widespread criticism at home of the human rights records of some of these regimes.
Sensitive to the interests and concerns of Britain’s partners in this part of the world, and well aware that official visits to Israel would not sit well with them, the royals for decades steered clear of the Jewish state.
Today, however, those interests and concerns have started to shift. Britain’s other allies nearby are preoccupied with the threats posed by the rapacious regime in Tehran. And in that face-off, they and Israel are on the same side.
Prince William’s optimistically defined “non-political” visit has yet to enter its more complicated diplomatic phase, when he meets the Palestinians and, especially, when he visits Jerusalem’s Old City — in what Israel regards as its sovereign capital, and what the prince’s official itinerary, to Israel’s dismay, designates as part of the “occupied Palestinian territories.”
But for Israel, an argument over terminology is a very small price to pay for the endorsement of legitimacy provided by a young, well-liked, sensible, and very senior British royal.
The Saudis are being extremely careful in publicly acknowledging the improving nature of their links with Israel. But Prince William’s visit, a substantive milestone in its own right for Israel, is also assuredly a significant indication of a wider positive shift in relations hereabout.