Why Prince Charles’ Official Visit to Israel Marks a 'New Phase' in U.K.-Israeli Relations

Heir to the British throne’s trip in January follows previous visit in June 2018 by his son, Prince William, and aims to duplicate that tour’s success

Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, laughing during the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering at Buckingham Palace, London, December 3, 2019.
AFP

LONDON – For over 70 years, Israel had invited the British royal family to visit the land they once ruled – to no avail. But now Israel is being graced in quick succession by two such tours. First came Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, in June 2018. And now his father, Prince Charles, will himself be making the journey next month.

Prince Charles “has always been a big supporter and friend of the Jewish community, as well as of Israel,” says banker-philanthropist Jacob Rothschild, 4th Baron Rothschild. “And this upcoming trip is a show of that huge sympathy and support.” 

The heir to the British throne will be joining dozens of world leaders at an event on January 23 to mark 75 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. Prince Charles was invited to the ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

This will not technically be Charles’ first visit to Israel. He has already visited twice before on behalf of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, for the state funerals of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995, and former President Shimon Peres in 2016.

Both those visits were labeled “private,” though, due to what the British government – the body in charge of approving such trips – diplomatically called “political sensitivities.” When pushed, it would usually explain, off-the-record, that Britain was hoping for progress on any potential Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before giving Israel the royal stamp of approval, so to speak.

Whether the government feels things have changed, is tired of waiting or, as Jewish historian and author Simon Sebag Montefiore says, it was “just overdue” – that position has clearly shifted.

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, walking along Frishman Beach with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, June 26, 2018.
Niv Aronson

“The royal family have no say in this decision, they have always wanted to go,” says Sebag Montefiore, whose parents-in-law have gone on skiing vacations with the royals for over 30 years, and who himself is personal friends with Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall.

“The Foreign Office has been slow and ponderous,” charges Sebag Montefiore. “But don’t forget,” he adds, “it took 100 years for the Queen to visit Ireland,” referring to the gap between King George V’s visit in 1911 and Elizabeth’s a century later.

Queen Elizabeth is the most widely traveled head of state in the world, having visited 116 of the United Nations’ 193 member states during her 67-year reign. She has never visited Israel, though, and is now highly unlikely to after officially ending her overseas trips in 2015.

That Charles – who at 71 is taking on more and more of his 93-year-old mother’s official duties – will represent her is, taken together with the earlier visit, a sign that Britain and Israel are entering into “a new phase of mutual respect,” says Sebag Montefiore.

During Prince William’s visit last year, he met with Holocaust survivors and visited Yad Vashem, strolled along Tel Aviv beach and heard all about “Startup Nation.” He also visited a refugee camp in Ramallah and met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

“With the Duke of Cambridge’s trip, we saw that such a visit could be navigated successfully, and this left us inclined to approve another royal visit now,” said a British diplomat who spoke to Haaretz on condition of anonymity.

Clarence House, the prince’s official residence, announced Wednesday that, like his son, Charles will travel to the West Bank to “undertake engagements on behalf of the British Government,” including a meeting with Abbas.

Prince Charles will join the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and, probably, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the World Holocaust Forum event in Jerusalem. Separately, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, will travel to Poland to attend a January 27 ceremony at Auschwitz-Birkenau marking 75 years since its liberation from the Nazis.

‘Great contribution’

Rumors of a royal visit to Israel have been circulating for the past month. On December 5, speaking at a Buckingham Palace gathering to celebrate the Jewish community, Prince Charles noted that “the eagle-eyed among you” would have noticed his recent trips to the Vatican, for a canonization, and to India, for a celebration of the founder of Sikhism.

Prince Charles attending the opening of his charity's new center in south London, December 17, 2019.
AFP

Those trips, Prince Charles explained, allowed him to express his appreciation for both “all that our Catholic community has brought to the United Kingdom over many centuries,” and also to the “half a million followers [of Sikhism] in the United Kingdom … [who] make such a great contribution to our national well-being.”

The prince delivered what many of the 400-strong members of the Jewish community present agreed was an exceedingly warm and emotional speech – and this just a week before a U.K. election in which anti-Semitism within the Labour Party had been a prominent, and painful, issue.

He described the connection between “the Crown and our Jewish community” as something “special” and “precious.” He was “personally touched,” he told the gathering, by the fact that “British synagogues have, for centuries, remembered my family in your weekly prayers.”

He also told a story that few had heard before about his father, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. “In 1933, my father, who was spending a year in school in Germany, helped an older schoolboy who had been identified as a Jew and badly mistreated by other boys. His act of compassion is a source of great pride and inspiration to me,” said Prince Charles. 

Rothschild and Sebag Montefiore, who were both at the event, say they do not believe that either the warmth of the evening or the subsequent announcement of Charles’ visit to Israel was tied to the election or meant to address Jewish fears about anti-Semitism. But as Sebag Montefiore puts it, they should be interpreted “as a welcome and reassuring landmark for Jews everywhere.”

Rothschild, who just this week was honored by Prince Charles at a different event – for his “exceptional” contributions to building bridges between Christian, Jewish and other communities – agrees. He says the sympathy of the royal family for the Jewish community and Israel has long been in evidence. 

Prince Charles speaking with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a NATO event at Buckingham Palace in London, December 3, 2019.
POOL/REUTERS

Indeed, Prince Charles spoke at length about other prominent British Jews throughout the ages and their contributions to British society: Sebag Montefiore’s great-great-uncle, Sir Moses Montefiore, “famed for his intervention to help persecuted Jews in foreign empires, and for his love for Jerusalem”; the first Jewish knight, Sir Solomon de Medina, who “provided vital supplies” to help the British Army win the Battle of Blenheim; and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who “although baptized as a child, never denied his Jewish heritage.”

Prince Charles also spoke with pride of his paternal grandmother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, who asked to be buried at the Church of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem, and was later honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations. Princess Alice received that posthumous award for her actions in 1943 when, in Nazi-occupied Athens, she took in a family of Jewish friends and hid them in her home – despite various members of her immediate family being married to Nazi Party members and sympathizers. The vast majority of Greece’s approximately 80,000 Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Princess Alice died in 1969 and her coffin was eventually transferred from Windsor Castle to Jerusalem in 1988.

“My grandmother was a formidable lady,” the prince told the gathering. “When she announced her intention of being buried in Jerusalem, we all wondered how on Earth we were going to be able to visit her grave. She answered: ‘That’s perfectly alright, there’s a very good bus service from Athens!’”