News of Prince William’s upcoming visit to Israel might just be a small silver lining to the very dark cloud of the Iranian threat. That threat has intensified in recent weeks as Iran, through its proxy, the terrorist group Hezbollah, has sought to flex its muscle in Syria.
Throughout the 70 years since the apparatchiks of the British authorities in Palestine packed their bags and the State of Israel came into existence, Britain has declined to send a member of the royal family on an official visit.
There have been plenty of requests and invitations, and the royals have travelled widely, but whenever discussions of an Israel trip gained momentum, the idea was spiked.
Royals have visited Israel in a personal capacity, most recently when Prince Charles attended the funeral for Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, but never in an official capacity. There was speculation that a visit was planned to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration last year, but it did not happen.
The late Haaretz editor David Landau, British-born and a keen royalist, once accused the Windsors of harboring a “nasty, petty British intrigue to deny Israel that rankling vestige of legitimation that is in their power to bestow or withhold — a royal visit.”
In reality, politics and diplomacy seem to have been bigger factors. When there was talk of a visit in 2015, a government source told Britain’s Daily Telegraph: “Until there is a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the royal family can’t really go there.”
But times have changed, and even though a peace settlement seems distant, Prince William will be heading this way before the end of the summer, in what Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin called “a very special present for our 70th year of independence.”
A gift, it seems, that has been made possible by the alarming developments in Tehran that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decried in Washington this week.
One of the big factors holding back a British royal visit was always Saudi Arabia. When the Saudis were zealously shunning Israel, Britain did not want to organize a royal visit, said Jonathan Rynhold, a British-Israeli political scientist.
“The Brits want to be an actor, to help resolve the conflict.”
“Now, the Saudis, like the Egyptians, are cooperating with Israel, so the Saudis are no longer a block to a visit,” added Rynhold, deputy head of the political science department at Bar-Ilan University. The catalyst for the change in Riyadh has been Iran — the Saudis are alarmed by the Iranian threat and growing closer to Israel in order to confront it.
It seemed logical a few years ago (hence the comment of the British official to the Daily Telegraph in 2015) that a visit to Israel before Israeli-Palestinian peace would cause diplomatic backlash from the likes of Saudi Arabia. London still reveres Riyadh, which bought $1.5 billion worth of British arms last year — it’s just that Riyadh has changed.
Of course, other factors have helped prepare the ground in London.
Former Israeli diplomat Freddy Eytan thinks that the change of heart is related to a British desire to get more involved in Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation — at a time when a question mark hangs over the American role and the Palestinians are refusing to cooperate with Washington. “The Brits want to be an actor, to help resolve the conflict,” he said. Eytan also believes that the young royals like William have prompted a rethink in London. “There’s a new generation and the young prince wants to turn a page,” he said.
But it’s important also to give Israel credit for shaping its own success in the relationship with Britain. Israel’s intelligence gathering — and intelligence sharing — is thriving at a time when many countries, including the UK, are daunted by counter-terrorism challenges. Jerusalem just confirmed that it helped Australia prevent an attack — and has suggested that this assistance was just the tip of the iceberg, as 29 other countries also received life-saving intelligence last year.
“There’s a new generation and the young prince wants to turn a page.”
In another sphere, Israeli innovation has helped take trade with Britain to new heights, and last month it was announced at the UK Israel Business Awards dinner that bilateral trade reached $9.6 billion in 2017, compared to $7.7 billion in 2016.
It’s no coincidence that this is happening post-Brexit — Israelis are seizing this opportunity of Britain’s break from the EU. Already, in the year after the Brexit referendum, the number of Israeli companies setting up in the UK increased by 28 percent, with a 33.5 percent increase in the level of investment.
Changes in the Middle East have made Prince William’s trip diplomatically possible. Israel’s indispensable intelligence credentials and smart positioning in relation to post-Brexit Britain convinced London that it is a trip worth making.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.