The late mother of a friend who made aliyah from Britain to Israel several years ago had one major regret about the country she had left. As a great royalist she was immensely disappointed that the Queen or a senior member of the royal family never had made a state visit to Israel.
The nearest thing to an official visit came well back in 1994 when Prince Philip made a private pilgrimage to the Jewish state in honour of his mother Princess Alice, sister of Lord Mountbatten and a Greek orthodox nun, who risked her life in Nazi occupied Athens to save the lives of Jews. His visit was recalled in the last several days after the Duke of Edinburgh’s decision to step down from his duties later this year to make way for the younger royals.
The other member of the royal family to set foot in Israel is the heir to the throne Prince Charles for the funerals of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 and Shimon Peres’s internment last year. The Prince of Wales took the opportunity to commemorate his grandmother Princess Alice quietly visiting her grave at the Convent of Saint Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.
The sparse history of royal trips to Israel, let alone a state visit is in contrast to other engagements in the Middle East or, for that matter, the tremendous support the royal family offers to British Jews.
At any moment it is likely that a member of the royal family is visiting one of the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia is almost like a second home. Similarly, Gulf emirs, sheikhs and kings have been frequent visitors to Britain’s palaces and have been accorded the privilege of a ride in the carriage alongside the Queen during Royal Ascot festivities.
As a boy growing up in Brighton I was taken aback when the women petrol attendant filling up the family car snarled at us that it was ‘our Queen and your country.’ It was explained to me later that this was an anti-Semitic remark making the point we owned and controlled too much but the royal family was British, sacred and untouchable.
How shocked that person would be now at the way in which the Windsors have cherished and supported the Jewish community. When the Board of Deputies marked its 250th birthday in 2010 the royals were over it like a rash. The Queen held a reception at St James Palace and Prince Charles, wearing his Prince of Wales feather embossed kippah, was the guest of honour at a dinner where he recounted in detail the connections between the royal family and Britain. This year he was guest of honour at the World Jewish Relief dinner. The Prince of Wales, who has cast himself as the defender of all faiths, was an important presence at the installation of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis in St Johns Woods.
The longstanding view of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office is that it would not be fitting for a senior royal to make a state visit to Israel until there is a formal peace with the Palestinians. The Queen did not feel able to travel to Ireland, where atrocities against British troops had occurred, until future relations between Ireland and Northern Ireland had been fully settled by the full implementation of the St Andrews accords.
Times finally could be a changing. The British-Israel trading relationship has given Israel an economic status which increasingly is equivalent to the Gulf nations.
Moreover, the philo-Jewish credentials of David Cameron and Theresa May mean that this year’s Balfour Declaration might provide an opportunity for that first official visit following an invitation issued by President Rivlin. No one is expecting the Queen, retired Prince Philip or immediate heirs Prince Charles or Prince William to do the honours. But one of the Queen’s sons, Andrew or Edward, are distinct possibilities.
Not quite what my friend’s mother desired. But a good start.