The royal family have been bypassing Israel on official visits for 70 years, so why has the government dispatched the Duke of Cambridge now? Part of the reason is that Israel is now a more important state in regional and global terms than it has ever been before. Put simply, Israel’s relative importance now makes it worth the effort.
Soft power is a state’s power of attraction, and a royal visit is Britain’s soft power special weapon. No other state has anything comparable to the star power of the royals. True, Israel has to make do with the Prince, without the added glam and charm of Kate and the kids, but it is still a near guaranteed smash hit. This is about selling Britain: its exports, its economy, and its tourism offering; but also its brand, culture and general influence.
Yet it is not surprising that Her Majesty’s Government have avoided sending the royals to Israel before now. The royal family’s credo is to stay out of politics, and Israel is a political minefield. This perception has been repeatedly reinforced within the FCO over the years by the frequent political mishaps that have plagued British Foreign Secretaries during trips to the country.
Israeli politicians have a record of using such visits to score domestic political points. When Jerusalem mayoral candidate Zeev Elkin leapt to condemn a loosely worded Kensington Palace press release suggesting the Old City was part of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, he illustrated exactly why the royals have been kept away so long.
Until now, it could easily be argued that visiting Israel was just not worth the risk; or that such a diplomatic cherry should be offered at a time of positive momentum in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Clearly those arguments do not currently hold sway, and this has something to do with Israel’s rising importance.
When the Jewish state was founded in 1948 it had a population of less than a million and was strategically vulnerable and economically destitute. Today it is a country of nine million, which by 2048 is projected to grow to 15 million – making it larger by population than most EU members.
Israel is an increasingly significant economy, with consistent growth and low unemployment which many other OECD members wish they could emulate. UK-Israel bilateral trade soared to a record $9.1billion in 2017, and a recent report by British think tank Open Europe identified Israel as one of four countries – alongside Canada, India and China – that the UK should focus on for post-Brexit trade growth. Israel also boasts an extraordinary hi-tech innovation ecosystem that Britain seeks to partner with.
Israel’s strategic importance has also increased since 2011, as the Arab state system has partially imploded with major spillover effects into Europe. Israel is a critical security partner for Egypt and Jordan, whose stability is a significant British concern. Israel is on the same side of key regional struggles as British-allied Gulf states with which Israel has no official relations, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This cooperation has been catalysed by the growing threat from Iran and Sunni Jihadists, coupled with US retrenchment.
Meanwhile Israel is a valued partner on addressing direct threats to British security. Israel is credited, for example, as the source of intelligence that ISIS planned to use laptops to bomb airlines. Israel is also a cyber-superpower, and according to a senior UK official quoted in a recent BICOM report, a “first order partner” for Britain in the fast growing realm of cyber security.
Meanwhile the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has fallen down the international political agenda.
For sure, the policies of the Netanyahu’s government remain a source of frustration. Israel’s failure to articulate a clear commitment to a two state solution, continued settlement construction, and violence around Gaza, are major drags on Israel’s own soft power, which make the country vulnerable to bottom up anti-Israel campaigns and Palestinian diplomatic initiatives, especially when US support is lacking. The latter was illustrated by a stinging UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements in December 2016, which the Obama administration declined to veto, and the UK backed. Labour has promised to immediately recognise a Palestinian state if elected.
But the Palestinians are deeply divided, isolated within the Arab world, and not winning much favour with their refusal to even talk to the Trump administration about a US peace proposal. Meanwhile Netanyahu enjoys exceptional diplomatic support from the Trump Administration.
With all that in mind, the Conservative government has clearly determined that UK-Israel bilateral relations are not going to be held hostage to progress on the Palestinian question, especially as Britain hurtles towards a chaotic Brexit. Through the royal visit, UK ministers will hope to get a little added boost to the bilateral relationship, and hope the Duke can keep all his hosts, Israel, the Jordanians, and the Palestinian, happy at the same time. We can only wish him luck.