Analysis |

First Royal Visit to Israel Is Sign of Britain’s Diminished Status in the World

The Brits are hoping the road to improved relations with Trump and Putin runs through Jerusalem and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Britain's Prince William holding his son, Prince George, with fellow members of the royal family at Buckingham Palace in London, June 13, 2015.
Britain's Prince William holding his son, Prince George, with fellow members of the royal family at Buckingham Palace in London, June 13, 2015.Credit: Tim Ireland / AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

In 2007, Clive Alderton, the deputy principal secretary to Prince Charles, emailed his boss, Sir Michael Peat, complaining: “I’m being pursued by the [Israeli] Ambassador; no doubt you are too.”

Just like every Israeli ambassador to the Court of St. James’s before him, Zvi Heifetz had issued invitations to members of Britain’s royal family to visit Israel.

“Safe to assume there is no chance of this visit ever actually happening?” Alderton asked, wanting to make sure standing policy hadn’t changed. “Acceptance would make it hard to avoid the many ways in which Israel would want HRH [His Royal Highness] to help burnish its international image.”

What a difference 11 years makes. At the time, Ehud Olmert was Israel’s prime minister and he was deep in negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on a comprehensive peace agreement. Nevertheless, the policy of Britain’s government remained that an official visit by a senior member of the royal family would take place only after any such agreement had been reached.

Fast-forward to 2018. Benjamin Netanyahu is prime minister, the diplomatic process with the Palestinians has been stagnant for years and never seemed more bogged down in intractable mud. Yet on Thursday morning, Kensington Palace announced that the second-in-line to the throne, Prince William, will be visiting Israel (as well as the Palestinian territories and Jordan) this summer. And you can bet that Netanyahu will be doing everything to use the visit to burnish Israel’s (and his) international image. Assuming he’s still in office, of course.

So what’s changed? A number of things – nearly all of them on the British side.

For a start, the United Kingdom – on what seems an irreversible course to leave the European Union following its Brexit vote – is trying to carve out a new niche for itself in international diplomacy.

With diminished clout on the world stage, it must utilize whatever assets it has. And the one unique thing Britain has is a young generation of royals who are instantly recognizable across the globe.

The relationship between Israel and the United Kingdom is currently slanted in Israel’s favor. Britain relies on Israel for intelligence on terror threats emanating from the Middle East much more than Israel needs the U.K.’s assistance.

Britain purchases Israeli high-tech and advanced weapons on a far larger scale than Israel buys similar “Made in Britain” products. And, no less crucial for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, Netanyahu enjoys a far stronger personal relationship with both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin than she does. But Britain still has princes.

The end of the unofficial royal boycott of Israel (Prince Charles visited Israel in “a private capacity” to attend the funerals of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres; and his father, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, visited his mother’s grave on Mount Zion, likewise privately), allied with the imminent arrival of a “senior royal” on an official visit, is also a sign of shifting power in Whitehall.

The power of the Foreign Office’s professional diplomats, who routinely vetoed any notion of a royal visit to Israel in the past, is on the wane. The Conservative politicians in government are no longer heeding their considered advice on Brexit and other foreign policy. Prime Minister May and her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, are both instinctively pro-Israel, and hopeful that Netanyahu can help them in the upcoming negotiations in Washington on Britain’s crucial trade deal (once it no longer enjoys the EU’s umbrella).

If the price the British government has to pay for gaining some goodwill in the Trump White House is giving Netanyahu the PR coup of being the first Israeli prime minister to host a 35-year-old unemployed helicopter pilot living off generous state benefits, then so be it.

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