The news that HRH Prince William is going to visit Israel is to be wholeheartedly welcomed. A long-standing Foreign Office taboo has been broken, only four months after Theresa May’s extremely warm words about Israel at Lancaster House during the celebration of the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
Royal visits have always been a central plank of Britain’s diplomacy over the centuries, and this one is a statement that Israel is no longer going to be treated like the pariah nation it so long has been by the Foreign Office. It is no therefore coincidence that although Her Majesty the Queen has made over 250 official overseas visits to 129 different countries during her reign, neither she nor one single member of the British royal family has ever yet been to Israel on an official visit.
Even though Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Greece, who was recognised as “Righteous Among the Nations” for sheltering a Jewish family in her Athens home during the Holocaust, was buried on the Mount of Olives, the Duke of Edinburgh was not allowed by the Foreign Office to visit her grave until 1994, and then only on a private visit. The Duke of Cambridge’s visit – which will be official – is therefore a splendid opportunity to right decades of wrong done to Israel in this regard.
“Official visits are organised and taken on the advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth office,” a press officer for the Royal Family explained when Prince Edward visited Israel privately – and a spokesman for the Foreign Office replied that ‘Israel is not unique” in not having received an official royal visit, because ‘Many countries have not had an official visit.’ That might be true for Burkino Faso and Chad, but the Foreign Office has somehow managed to find the time over the years to send the Queen on State visits to Libya, Iran, Sudan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan and Turkey. So it can’t have been that she wasn’t in the area.
Perhaps Her Majesty hadn’t been on the throne long enough, at two-thirds of a century, for the Foreign Office to get round to allowing her to visit the only democracy in the Middle East. At least she could be certain of a warm welcome in Israel, unlike in Morocco where she was kept waiting by the King for three hours in 90 degree heat, or at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Uganda, where they hadn’t even finished building her hotel.
The Foreign Office ban on Royal visits to Israel was all the more powerful for its being unwritten and unacknowledged, like so much ‘club’ or ‘social’ anti-Semitism in Britain. As an act of delegitimisation of Israel, this effective boycott was quite as serious as other similar acts, such as the academic boycott. Now it is over, and hopefully there will be many such visits, including of Prince Charles and he Duchess of Cornwall.
Israel has been in existence for longer even than Her Majesty the Queen has been on the Throne. It was high time that someone of status in the House of Windsor went there. When he gets back to Britain after his visit, Prince William will be able to tell the rest of his family what a wonderful place they were forced to miss out visiting because of the ban imposed for 70 years by a small group of Foreign Office Arabists. He will hopefully open the door to plenty more such visits, advertising to the world how much Britain values her brave democratic ally in the Middle East.