It’s time to shake hands with Israel, your Majesty

May 21, 2015 16:25

The royal family is one of the most important institutions that Britain has at its diplomatic disposal. At the request of the government, the Queen — or a member of her family — may be sent on a state visit to a foreign realm as a sign of solidarity and good relations, or a commitment to building better relations despite countries being alienated by political differences.

The latter came through this week, in Prince Charles’s well-publicised handshake with Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin, the former political wing of the IRA. The meeting comes after our future king famously took part in the Saudi Arabian sword dance last year, standing by a country marred by human-rights abuses and a corrupt justice system.

And yet no member of the royal family has ever visited Israel in an official capacity. Prince Philip once went to a Yad Vashem ceremony honouring his mother as a Righteous Among the Nations; Prince Charles attended Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral; and Prince Edward travelled to Israel for a private visit — but their offices were keen to stress that none of these trips was official.

It has been suggested that an official visit to the Jewish state would be a step too far. But why would a visit to Israel — the only democracy in the Middle East — be seen as more controversial than royals visiting Saudi Arabia, Libya, Russia, China, India and so on?

This week, I put the question to representatives for Her Majesty, Prince Charles, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Israeli embassy.

The embassy declined to comment publicly on the issue. The royal representatives emphasised that Queen Elizabeth and her family members made state visits only at the request of the government.

An FCO spokesman said: “The UK is a close friend of Israel and we enjoy an excellent bilateral relationship, built on decades of co-operation between our two countries. We continue to deepen and advance our links in education, energy, science, and technology, where we have much more to share and benefit from. We would not comment on future plans for royal visits. Decisions on where members of the Royal Family visit on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government are taken by the Royal Visits Committee and include advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.”

The lack of an official visit from a member of the British royal family to Israel has not been for want of an invitation. In 2007, an email exchange between two of Prince Charles’s closest aides was leaked to the JC, revealing serious internal concerns over accepting an invitation from the Israeli embassy to visit as guests of the Knesset.

The invitation to Sir Michael Peat, who was then Prince Charles’s principal private secretary, and Clive Alderton, his deputy, was seen as a prelude to a possible official visit by the Prince, which would have been the first by a British royal to Israel.

But despite the invitation from the then ambassador, Zvi Heifetz, Mr Alderton wrote to Sir Michael: “I’m being pursued by the Ambassador; no doubt you are too. Safe to assume that there is no chance of this visit ever actually happening? Acceptance would make it hard to avoid the many ways in which Israel would want HRH to help burnish its international image.”

I put this to a Clarence House spokesperson, asking if the Prince of Wales would, in principle, now be opposed to a trip to Israel? I got this: “The Prince of Wales’s official overseas visits are made at the request of the British Government. We wouldn’t comment on visits in principle.”

To date, Queen Elizabeth II has visited more than 60 governments — harbouring ties with some of the world’s most controversial countries. She was the first monarch to have visited China, Russia, Brunei, Malaysia and Korea. She was the first to visit South Africa after apartheid, the first to visit the Republic of Ireland, and she has retained close relations with the Saudi Arabian royal family. She even dressed in green for her handshake with Martin McGuinness in 2012.

A boast has been posted on the British monarchy’s official website. It reads: “The Queen has travelled more than any other Sovereign in history. During her reign, her overseas visits have helped strengthen diplomatic bonds between the United Kingdom and other countries. Overseas visits have become one of her most important duties.” And so, the questions still stands. Why has Her Majesty — or a member of her family — still not been asked to strengthen diplomatic ties between the UK and Israel?

I am not calling into question the monarchy’s commitment to the Jewish community in Britain. The Queen is a patron of Norwood, Prince Charles is a patron of the Jewish Museum and World Jewish Relief among other communal organisations. But, perhaps, like others, they have overlooked how important Israel is to the Jewish community in Britain. Every Shabbat, most synagogue congregants in the country pray for the welfare of the royal family and also the state of Israel.

One can only hope that one day, the two might come together.

May 21, 2015 16:25

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