Prince William’s visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories this week was unusual for a number of reasons, saying a lot about Britain, Israel and the Palestinians, and this troubling moment in the Middle East. First—and most obviously—there was its novelty. Why did the UK and the Royal Family choose this moment to break a 70-year tradition of avoiding an official visit? Brexit and its attendant uncertainty and isolation, Israel’s 70th anniversary, and relations with Donald Trump’s America were all likely a factor. Security Council seat aside, post-Brexit Britain and Israel are closer to geo-political and economic peers than at any point in the last seventy years. The Royal Family has long been deployed as an advance brigade of British trade and investment, and it’s likely that this was a heavy element of the calculation at the FCO.
Britain’s controversial historical role in the region must also have influenced decision-making, yet the Prince’s visit involved precious little retrospection. Instead, it was a surprising reflection of the present realities, and an opportunity—thanks to that rare thing in this troubled land, a depoliticised high-profile visitor—for a different sort of conversation, focused on the 13 million human beings that live in the region, rather than their respective, often maddeningly dysfunctional political elites.
I have lost count of the number of shuttle diplomacy visits by special envoys, foreign ministers, prime ministers and presidents that have resulted in little more than a boon to the local luxury hotel industry. Cards on the table: I’m a republican. Yet Prince William’s ceremonial role allowed him to do something different, something his mother made into an art form: connecting with ordinary people. Whether it was playing football with Jewish and Arab kids at the Peres Centre (one of ALLMEP’s 100+ members), watching Palestinian refugees dance the dabka in the destitute Jalazoun camp outside of Ramallah, or discussing the mental health crisis amongst the young with Eurovision winner Netta, this trip led on the sort of humanising themes that politicians usually tack on as an afterthought. For us in the peace-building community it struck a different tone.
ALLMEP’s membership encompasses some of the bravest and most dedicated people between the river and the sea. They are the glue holding together a fractured reality, and the forces keeping a terrible situation from becoming immeasurably worse; whilst pointing toward a better, more just future that can be secured if only more would join their ranks, and recognise—as President Rivlin said to Prince William— that they are “destined to live together.” Critically, they are starved of both resources and attention. The UK’s announcement earlier this year that it will support the creation of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace goes some way toward addressing the former, whilst the Prince’s visit helped to shine a much-needed light on their work, allowing the issues and injustices—and the people working to transform them—to be beamed into the living rooms of millions of Britons.
Too many cynical Middle East watchers dismiss this as a frivolity. But remember: it is not coming at the expense of the more conventional political visit. Rest assured that Jared and Jason, and a host of foreign ministers and diplomats will be in town again before too long. But remember also that President Abbas and President Rivlin issued perhaps the most conciliatory messages we’ve heard from senior Israeli or Palestinian politicians since President Trump’s move on Jerusalem (a position that the Prince clearly refuted, with his agenda’s reference to “occupied” East Jerusalem).
Speaking to young Palestinian refugees in Jalazoun, the Prince said: “I am also struck by how many people in the region want a just and lasting peace. This is only too evident among the young people I have met, who long for a new chapter to be written in the history of this region – a chapter which will secure them a prosperous future and will ensure that their enormous talents can flourish. These are not extravagant aspirations, but the same aspirations of young people everywhere in the world.” Soft power can sometimes produce results that hard power cannot, and it turns out that Britain in 2018 may have more of the former than the latter anyway.