Prince Edward, the earl of Wessex and the youngest son of Queen Elizabeth, arrived in Israel yesterday, marking the first royal visit here in more than a decade. But despite his high-profile four-day tour, the prince's visit has been categorized as "private" and so the situation remains unchanged: not a single member of the British royal family has ever been to Israel on an official visit.
Prince Edward, who is seventh in line for succession to the British throne, is the third member of the British royal family to visit Israel. Both his father, Prince Philip, the duke of Edinburgh, and his brother, Prince Charles, have been here on unofficial visits.
The Prince was invited by the Israel Youth Award program, a self-development group for Jewish and Arab youth that is affiliated with the Duke of Edinburgh's Award International Association. In recent years, Prince Edward has taken on several of his father's roles, including the awards scheme.
During his visit, Prince Edward will not be meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or President Shimon Peres. His schedule includes a tour of Yad Vashem today, where a tree has been planted in honor of his grandmother Princess Alice of Greece, who was recognized as "Righteous Among the Nations" for sheltering a Jewish family in her Athens home during the Holocaust.
He will also attend Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem with Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, as well as prominent members of the British community in Israel. Though members of the royal family are frequent fliers and have paid numerous official visits to other countries in the Middle East, Israel has yet to be bestowed the honor.
During her more than five decade reign, Queen Elizabeth has undertaken over 256 official overseas visits to 129 different countries, including Jordan in 1984. During a 1979 tour of the Middle East, she visited several Arab countries include Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Other members of the royal family have also paid official visits to the region.
In 1989, Prince Charles and his then wife, Diana, visited the United Arab Emirates. Last year, the prince and his new wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, visited Egypt and Saudi Arabia as part of a two-week official tour. And in 2004, Prince Charles visited Iran, where he met with then president Mohammed Khatami in what British officials described as "entirely non-political."
Yesterday, a Buckingham Palace official confirmed that Prince Edwards's visit was "private," but would not comment on the reasons that members of the royal family have yet to pay an official visit here.
"Official visits are organized and taken on the advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth office," Meryl Keeling, a press officer for the royal family said from London.
A spokesperson for the Foreign Office, in turn, said that Israel is "not unique" in not having received an official royal visit.
"Many countries have not had an official visit," the spokesperson said. "Members of the royal family travel extensively, and not having dialogue with the Prime Minister or Foreign Minister [during visits to foreign countries] is not uncommon." The Foreign Office spokesperson added that the queen and Prince Philip have restricted their travel considerably in recent years, presumably because of their age. "State visits, both incoming and outgoing, are not at the same frequency as they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago."
Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was the first member of the British royal family to visit Israel when he took part in a 1994 ceremony at Yad Vashem honoring his mother. A year later in 1995, Prince Charles visited Israel to attend Yitzchak Rabin's funeral.
In recent years, however, there have been two official Israeli state visits to Britain - President Chaim Herzog visited Britain in 1993, and President Ezer Weizman visited in 1997.
Last year, former British Ambassador to Israel Simon McDonald told Haaretz that a member of the British royal family will only make an official state visit to Israel once there is peace.
"The key issue in deciding a state visit is peace, and when there is peace, there will be a state visit," he said. "The queen is our head of state and so we need to be careful."
McDonald added that when there is peace, he "will be pushing" for a state visit to Israel. Lord Greville Janner, a member of the House of Lords and a leading figure in the British Jewish community, said that an official state visit to Israel would be too "politically controversial."
"A state visit would be a very clear gesture that the government does not want to make because of the reaction that might arise from neighboring states," Lord Janner told Haaretz yesterday. "I do hope that the queen will visit Israel on a state visit. It's a pity, but they do not want to stir up trouble."
Other prominent members of the British community also expressed disappointment in the decision to classify the visit as private.
"Israel has existed for 60 years now, and it is time we had an official royal visit," said Brenda Katten, chair of the Israel, Britain and Commonwealth Association. "It feels strange that we are the only ones excluded, and I don't know why that is. We've been told that when Israel has peace, someone will come, but the fact of the matter is, that other countries haven't had peace and they've nevertheless received official visits."
The British Embassy in Tel Aviv said that the government "regularly looks at places members of the royal family should visit and will continue to do so." It said, however, that the decision takes into account "a combination of diary commitments, the objective for the proposed visit, and the situation on the ground."
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