Prince William’s visit a PR coup for Israel, with some royal pain amid the gain

The future UK monarch’s historic trip boosted Israel’s international legitimacy, but also underlined the world’s ongoing discomfort with Jewish sovereignty throughout Jerusalem

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Britain's Prince William stands on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City with the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock on June 28, 2018. (AFP Photo/Pool/Thomas Coex)
Britain's Prince William stands on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives overlooking the Old City with the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock on June 28, 2018. (AFP Photo/Pool/Thomas Coex)

This prince wasn’t very Machiavellian.

As British officials had stressed countless times before the Duke of Cambridge’s arrival in the region earlier this week, his historic visit here was intended to celebrate the UK’s bilateral ties with Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but otherwise remain strictly apolitical.

He would not recognize a Palestinian state or apologize for the Balfour Declaration, they predicted, but nor would he do anything that could be interpreted as recognizing Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem.

And so it was.

President Reuven Rivlin told William about the need for the Palestinians to finally come to terms with Israel being the nation-state of the Jewish people. PA President Mahmoud Abbas asserted his continued commitment to a peace agreement with Israel based on the 1967 lines. But the prince would not be drawn, sticking to vague talking points prepared in advance. He did appear to slip by referring to the Palestinian territories as a country when meeting Abbas, but he didn’t even endorse the idea of a two-state solution.

Nonetheless, the future king’s visit was highly significant for Israel, despite a few nuisances along the way.

The importance of his tour lies mainly in the fact that a member of the royal family, after seven decades of unofficial boycott, finally came on an official visit to the State of Israel.

Britain’s Prince William (left) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on June 26, 2018. (AFP Photo/Pool/Thomas Coex)

It’s a harsh blow to those who seek to delegitimize the State of Israel when Great Britain — which not only abstained on the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan but also repeatedly refused to vote in favor of Israel’s joining the UN, only recognizing the nascent Jewish state in April 1950 — finally sent a representative of Her Majesty to Jerusalem for meetings with Israel’s most senior leaders.

Supporters of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement must have scratched their heads, furthermore, upon learning that the second-in-line to the British throne had opted to stay at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, which Jewish underground fighters bombed in 1946, killing scores of British soldiers.

The joy BDS activists felt after the Argentinian soccer team canceled its planned friendly match in Jerusalem would have quickly evaporated this week as they saw the prince shaking hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a street named after Arthur Balfour, the former UK foreign secretary who paved the way for modern Israel’s creation.

On Tuesday, the duke hailed the “unique character of Tel Aviv, its flair and diversity,” compared Israel’s “innovation, diversity, talent and excellence” to that of his own country, and noted that bilateral ties — including trade relations and defense cooperation — were at an all-time high.

“There is… an essential vibrancy to this country,” the prince enthused at a reception at the residence of UK Ambassador to Israel David Quarrey in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan.

He had absorbed that vibrancy hours earlier at a meeting with Jewish and Arab kids at a soccer event, and in stroll on Tel Aviv beach, when his relaxed nature conveyed a sense of ease at being in Israel that will have done wonders for the way the country is perceived.

Britain’s Prince William (R) high-fives a beach volleyball player during a visit with the mayor of Tel Aviv in the coastal city on June 26, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / POOL / MENAHEM KAHANA)

In that same speech at the ambassador’s residence, however, William issued a call for peace he would repeat several times. “This region has a complicated and tragic history — in the past century the people of the Middle East have suffered great sadness and loss. Never has hope and reconciliation been more needed,” William declared. “I know I share a desire with all of you, and with your neighbors, for a just and lasting peace.”

He reiterated the last three sentences, verbatim, a day later at a reception for Palestinians held at the UK’s Consulate General in Jerusalem.

And that’s the thorn in Israel’s side, the minor royal pain that accompanied the gain: Those parts of the prince’s visit that took place beyond the 1967 lines, including those in East Jerusalem, were not organized by the British embassy in Tel Aviv but took place under the auspices of the country’s Jerusalem consulate, which is located in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in the city’s eastern section.

Britain’s Prince William delivers a speech during a reception at the British Consulate in Jerusalem on June 27, 2018. (AFP Photo/Pool/Debbie Hill)

“The story of the Palestinian people is so often told only through the lens of difficulty and conflict — but there is another story which I was privileged to witness today,” Prince William said at the consulate’s reception on Wednesday evening, standing in a part of Jerusalem that Israelis consider part of their united capital.

“My message tonight is that you have not been forgotten,” he added. “It has been a very powerful experience to meet you and other Palestinians living in the West Bank, and to hear your stories.”

Thus the prince addressed Israelis in a diplomatic mission in Tel Aviv, and Palestinians in a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem.

On Thursday, the duke conducted “private visits” to the Dome of the Rock, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, all located in Jerusalem’s Old City — which, according to the prince’s official itinerary, is part of the “Occupied Palestinian Territories.”

These visits were overseen by the Jerusalem consulate, whose official mission statement expresses support for a “democratic Palestinian State based on 1967 borders, living in peace alongside Israel, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of both states and the Occupation ended by agreement.”

Ahead of the visit, UK officials defended the use of the term “Occupied Palestinian Territories” by arguing it was longstanding British policy to describe in this fashion any location outside Israel’s recognized borders.

That may be accurate, but Israelis may be forgiven for taking offense at the prince applying such a label to the Western Wall — a place that even the UK Consulate in Jerusalem says was “part of the ancient Wall of the Second Temple, the focus of Jewish worship for millennia.”

Britain’s Prince William touches the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in Jerusalem’s Old City on June 28, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Menahem KAHANA)

Israelis will never get enough of VIPs visiting the Western Wall. Despite the prince’s insistence on going there without official Israeli accompaniment, the sober minute during which he stood there in quiet introspection is seen as a grand gesture that signals respect for the Jewish people’s connection with this land and this city.

And yet, even well-established diplomatic practice cannot hide a certain dissonance — some may call it unfairness — in the future monarch’s strenuous efforts to not appear to recognize Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem (he reportedly refused to meet Mayor Nir Barkat in the city), but also to designate the entire Old City as part of the Palestinian territories.

While none of this prejudges the outcome of possible future final-status peace negotiations, and Israeli officials rightly consider Prince William’s ostensibly apolitical visit a success, it also highlighted some diplomatic anomalies that remain a royal complication for the Jewish state.

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