As political tightrope walking goes, it doesn’t get much tougher than making official visits to Israel and the West Bank in the same trip, especially for a man who will one day be the King of England, the imperial power whose actions did so much to lay the foundations for the chaos which still afflicts the region.
But that, rather remarkably, is exactly what Prince William is up to this week (he is also paying a visit to Jordan, one of Britain’s key allies in the region, and last night watched a recording of the England game with the country’s Crown Prince).
Over the next few days, William will meet with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.
In one sense, of course, the visit could not come at a worse time: over a hundred Palestinians have been killed recently in protests at the Gaza border (William will not, for obvious reasons, be visiting the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip), and tensions between Israel and Palestine have also been inflamed by President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
But the trip seems to have been spurred on by the acceptance that there was never going to be a ‘good’ time to visit Israel and Palestine. As Prince William’s spokesperson told reporters at a June briefing ahead of the trip: “The complex challenges in the region are of course well known.”
Well, yes, they are.
The palace has been at pains to emphasize that William’s visit is “non-political” and in one sense that is absolutely true. William will not be dispensing any opinions on this trip.
But on another level, the mere fact of William being in Israel is hugely, deeply, unshakably political.
Britain has been intimately involved in every step of the story of modern Israel; you can trace a line through history from the Balfour declaration in 1917 (named after Arthur Balfour, the senior British lawmaker who declared Britain’s support for a Jewish state) to today’s ongoing sales of millions of pounds-worth of military equipment to the Israelis annually.
Whilst the royal visit is clearly being welcomed in some sections of the Palestinian community, who see value in any spotlight being shone on their culture and plight, some Palestinian rights groups are fearful that by having a senior royal visit Israel for the first time, the British government is effectively endorsing Israel’s alleged human rights abuses.
Ben Jamal, Director of the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (the group has been in the headlines of late due to its star patron, the leader of the Labor party, Jeremy Corbyn, whose support for this and other groups has seen him accused of anti-Semitism) said in a statement: “When the UK government sends a member of the royal family to any region in the world it is crucial their visit supports the principles of respect for human rights. If Prince William’s visit is to further this cause, it must be used to bring attention to the daily injustices meted out against Palestinians by the Israeli government and to urge the UK government to take meaningful action against this.”
The organization had not responded to the Daily Beast’s requests for further comment by press time.
The palace is doing its level best to insist that this is a royal visit much like any other – the focus is on "young people, their aspirations, and their experiences" – and William will steadfastly ignore the hatred and bloody history between the two sides. Reality will not be entirely whitewashed, however; the palace has confirmed that the Duke will indeed be meeting "refugees."
William arrives in Israel from Jordan later tonight and the Israeli part of the tour kicks off tomorrow morning with a visit to Yad Vashem – Israel's official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, before a sit down with Netanyahu. Then it will be on to Jaffa and Tel Aviv.
The following day will see William visit what the palace describes, with careful attention to semiotics, as the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Specifically, William will travel to Ramallah where he will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The afternoon’s program, the palace says, “will include events that focus on the issues facing refugee communities.”
No doubt some of the trusty Royal memes will be wheeled out – including, it has been briefed, a game of football.
But there is little doubt that for the Israelis, William’s visit is a significant piece of signposting.
A spokesperson for the Jewish advocacy group Jewish Human Rights Watch (JHRW) told the Daily Beast: “We think it’s fantastic Prince William is going to Israel, because the Jewish state has been unfairly demonized for many years by an old idea of boycotting Jews. It can only be good that Prince William comes and sees for himself the thriving democracy that is Israel.
“It’s a recognition that Israel has so much to offer, in terms of business and culture.”
How does JHRW feel about the Prince also visiting Palestine?
“We are more than happy for him to go everywhere and anywhere. It’s people from the extreme left sides of Gaza who try and stop people coming and actually seeing the Jewish state. We say he should go, and keep an open mind.”
Asked if he believed the trip could be truly non-political, the spokesperson said, “If anybody can manage to do that, it will be Prince William.”