What is the significance of Prince William’s announced visit to Israel?

The visit has been welcomed by Israel, which has long viewed the lack of official royal attention as a snub.
Sunday 18/03/2018
Britain’s Prince William and his wife Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, visit the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial, in Berlin, last July. (AP)
Maybe no significance. Britain’s Prince William and his wife Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, visit the Holocaust Memorial, in Berlin, last July. (AP)

There is little clarity about the purpose and timing of the visit to Israel this summer by Prince William, who is second in line to the British throne. It would be the first official visit to Israel by a British royal.

The visit was announced March 1, barely a week after the Trump administration said it would speed up the opening of its embassy in Jerusalem after controversially moving it from Tel Aviv. No one is sure what signals it’s meant to send, if any.

The US Embassy’s Jerusalem opening May 14 is expected to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the end of British mandatory rule over Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel. Palestinians call that event the Nakba — “catastrophe.” Jerusalem is not recognised as Israel’s capital by most of the international community because of its occupation of lands seized in the 1967 war.

Where does Prince William’s visit fit in to the events already in motion in Israel and the Palestinian territories by US President Donald Trump?

The British prince’s visit has been welcomed by Israel, which has long viewed the lack of official royal attention as a snub. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), has said Prince William would be a welcome guest.

Just last year, however, Abbas talked of the “historic injustice” created by the Balfour Declaration in 1917 when then-British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour promised a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people.

Diana Buttu, a former adviser to the PA, said Abbas’s welcome to Prince William sounded a contradictory note. “On the one hand, Abbas says Britain should pay reparations because of Balfour and on the other he welcomes Prince William. It shows the lack of a political stance,” she said.

Official royal visits are arranged with the British government. Prince Charles, William’s father and first in line to succeed Queen Elizabeth II, went to Israel in 2016 to attend the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres but that was not an official state visit.

No timing or details of Prince William’s visit, which would be part of a wider Middle East trip, were given. He is expected to make the trip alone as his wife is due to give birth to their third child in April.

The official announcement merely said Prince William’s visit was “at the request of Her Majesty’s government and has been welcome by the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian authorities.” British ministers have added little colour to the official announcement. It is an “important and unique opportunity to promote diplomatic and cultural ties in the region,” said Alistair Burt, foreign office minister.

Britain, led by Prime Minister Theresa May, is subsumed by negotiations over its departure from the European Union, popularly called Brexit. This has led to media speculation in the United Kingdom and in Israel that London is seeking a post-Brexit niche and the royal trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories is part of that attempt.

“With diminished clout on the world stage, it (Britain) must utilise whatever assets it has,” said an analysis in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “and the one unique thing Britain has is a young generation of royals who are instantly recognisable across the globe.”

Britain’s tabloid press has suggested that Prince William’s trip is part of a pre-Brexit timetable. Last summer, tabloids said a royal visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories was cancelled; the Foreign Office denied a trip was being planned at the time.

Even more controversially, e-mail by a royal aide leaked in 2007 said acceptance of an Israeli invitation by Prince Charles would be used by Tel Aviv to boost its standing. “Acceptance would make it hard to avoid the many ways in which Israel would want [Prince Charles] to help burnish its international image,” said the e-mail.

Buttu suggested that none of this is as significant as it might seem. While Britain and the European Union seem to take a harder line than the United States on the issue of Israeli settlement on occupied territory such as East Jerusalem, it amounts to little concrete action, she said.

“All the members of the EU speak with one voice against settlements but this doesn’t amount to actual policy, such as sanctioning Israel in any way. So Europe is actually only a shade away from Washington in its actions,” she said. “For 25 years, they’ve let the US take the lead but this is like letting the fox guard the hen house because Israel has been rewarded for its actions, not punished for seizing territory.”

Buttu pointed out that Abbas turns 83 at the end of March and there are persistent rumours that he is in poor health. “Anything could happen in the next three months so who knows if Prince William’s visit would actually happen should Abbas die and there’s turmoil in the PA?” she said.

If Prince William does travel to the Middle East, Buttu said she hoped he would not tack on a visit to Ramallah as a “sideshow” to a main trip to Israel as did so many other officials. “He might make a little visit to Ramallah to make his trip to Israel look more legitimate and just meet elite and unelected leaders, like himself, and not meet real Palestinians.”