Analysis

Another Royal Visit to Israel, Another Sign of Britain’s Weakness

Prince Charles’ visit to Jerusalem this week highlights the post-Brexit U.K.’s desperation to secure a favorable trade deal with the United States, not a thawing of ties with the Jewish state

Britain's Prince Charles looks on as he arrives to a reception at the  British Ambassador residence in Ramat Gan, Israel, on January 23, 2020.
POOL/ REUTERS

For 70 years, the British royal family boycotted Israel. It wasn’t an official boycott, of course. But it was often unofficially acknowledged by officials that a royal visit to Israel was out of the question, until some distant date in the future when Israel would have peace with its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians. 

Oddly, this didn’t prevent the various royals, including Queen Elizabeth II, from visiting Arab countries that were officially at war with Israel. For some unexplained reason, it was only the Jewish state that had to make peace to be deemed worthy of a royal visit.

Even when one of the royals actually arrived in Israel – like when the queen’s husband, Prince Philip, visited his mother’s grave on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, or when her son, Prince Charles, attended the funerals of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres – the British were at pains to emphasize that these were “private” visits.

Back in 2007, in an exchange of emails inadvertently sent to the Israeli ambassador, Zvi Heifetz, after Israel had yet again issued another hopeless invitation to the royal family, one senior civil servant wrote: “Safe to assume there is no chance of this visit ever actually happening?” To which his colleague responded, “Acceptance would make it hard to avoid the many ways in which Israel would want HRH [Prince Charles] to help burnish its international image. In which case, let’s agree a way to lower [Heifetz’s] expectations.”

Britain's Prince Charles, left, is welcomed by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to his official residence in Jerusalem, on Thursday January 23, 2020. 
Julian Simmonds,AP

It would take another 11 years for the “boycott” to end with the official visit to Israel of Prince William, grandson of the queen and second in line to the throne. It was diplomatically meaningless, yet still a proud moment for provincial Israelis and gushing monarchist British Jews – who are inexplicably loyal to the royal family despite many centuries of hostility.

This dates back to the expulsion of the Jews from England by Edward I in 1290 (they were only allowed back by Oliver Cromwell, Britain’s republican leader, nearly four centuries later) all the way to the Queen’s father, George VI, who on the eve of the Holocaust urged the British government to ask Nazi Germany to prevent Jewish refugees from escaping Europe to British Mandatory Palestine.

Needless to say, the royal family has never apologized for any of this.

Charles is now visiting Israel for the first time in an official capacity, representing the United Kingdom at the fifth World Holocaust Forum (marking the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s liberation).

The British government could have sent a minister but instead deployed its second-most senior royal, the direct heir to the crown. 

So, after 70 years of a royal boycott, that is now two royal visits in 18 months. What changed?

On the Israeli side, very little. The peace with Egypt and Jordan is frosty, and nonexistent with its other Arab neighbors. The diplomatic process with the Palestinians has been frozen for nearly six years, and the prospects of renewing it under the current Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are zero. As unbelievable as this may sound, Israel received its first two royal visits under one of its most right-wing and anti-peace governments ever. 

The royal visits of 2018 and 2020 say nothing about Israel, but speak volumes about Britain’s diminished status in the world. 
Next week, it will be officially leaving the European Union and is desperate to secure as many trade deals with other countries as possible. Israel is, at best, a medium-sized trading partner with the United Kingdom. But it enjoys a unique relationship with the leader of the country Boris Johnson’s Conservative government is most anxious for an advantageous trade agreement with: the United States.

How can the British curry favor in Washington and show they are friendly with Israel? The cheapest way is to dispatch the royals to Jerusalem. As proven by the recent royal scandals – Prince Andrew’s dismal friendship with pedophile and pimp Jeffrey Epstein; the decision of Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle to split with Buckingham Palace – the Windsors are still prime-time soap-opera fodder, suppliers of the kind of tawdry glamor U.S. President Donald Trump appreciates.

Charles gets no say in all this. At 71, waiting for his mother to die/abdicate and make his way to the throne, he still has to go wherever the government tells him. Even when his family is breaking up back home. Last week it was to Oman, to attend the mourning ceremony of Sultan Qaboos bin Said. This week, it’s the Auschwitz commemoration in Jerusalem.

And unlike his son William, who got all the limelight in what was a fun-filled summer visit, Charles is just another glum dignitary among the delegations of over 40 countries and, worse, one without any real power of his own like Vladimir Putin, Emmanuel Macron, Mike Pence and the other senior politicians. 

If you want to understand why Harry and Meghan escaped the palace, just look at the past 50 years of Charles’ life: a grueling and grinding schedule of showing the flag wherever the government of the day sends him.

Shorn of most of its assets, a third-rate power about to commit a grievous act of national self-harm by cutting itself off from the world’s most successful international trading body, Britain still has its celebrity ambassadors in the poor overworked princes – and it can no longer afford to hold them back from visits to Israel.