by Yasmine El-Geressi
The Duke of Cambridge embarked on the most challenging diplomatic trip of his lifetime this week when he walked the thin line of Middle Eastern politics for five days while attempting to avoid any trip ups that could upset any party – a big ask for even the most seasoned head of state. The 36 year old Prince travelled to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, becoming the first ever British royal to undertake an official visit to the latter two since the British Mandate ended and the State of Israel was founded in 1948. Britain has since taken a back seat to the United States in mediating peace efforts, and the royal family has mostly steered clear of the region’s politics and so for a region with a long history of complicated and controversial British involvement, that’s a significant milestone.
Although Kensington Palace has heavily emphasised that the trip, which came at the request of the government, is strictly “non-political,” in keeping with the royal family’s ceremonial constitutional role, for people across the region, the second part of William’s tour carried political undertones as he held meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. He also visited landmark Jerusalem sites at the heart of the century-old conflict. Both sides paid careful attention to the messages the Prince conveyed during these meetings particularly as the visit comes amid heightened tensions over deadly clashes on the Gaza border and President Trump’s controversial decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
A MESSAGE OF PEACE
For two days Prince William’s trip to the Middle East was relaxed and orientated around youth. It began in Jordan where he was hosted by Crown Prince Hussein, whose father King Abdullah II was in Washington to meet with President Donald Trump to talk about the myriad problems afflicting his small nation. The two future monarchs went to Fablab, an initiative of Hussein’s that equips entrepreneurs with needed technology. They also met with some of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have sought asylum in the country. The pair even camped out in the royal family’s private residence to watch England defeat Panama 6-1 at the World Cup.
Despite not being sent as a peace negotiator, The Duke of Cambridge was thrown into the midst of Middle Eastern politics following a visit Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial where he will meet two survivors who escaped Nazi Germany for the safety of Britain. During a meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Prince William was asked to deliver a message of peace to the leader of the Palestinian Authority, “I know that you are going to meet President Abbas,” Rivlin said, referring to the President of the Palestinian Authority. “I would like you to send him a message of peace. “And tell him it is about time that we have to find together a way to build confidence.”
The Duke was hailed by Reuven Rivlin as a “Prince and a pilgrim,” adding: “You are writing a new page in history. Because we’ve had a lot of kings and princes that came to Jerusalem during the history of Jerusalem, which is three or four thousand years, and you are the first one to come not only as a prince but also as a pilgrim. We welcome you from the bottom of our hearts.”
In a public meeting with President Rivlin in front of the world’s media, the Duke replied: “I very much hope that peace in the area can be achieved.”
The next day William met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in his Ramallah offices where Abbas reaffirmed his “full commitment to achieving a full and lasting peace based on a two-state solution where the state of Palestine lives side by side with the state of Israel, with both supervising peace and security”.
The Palestinian president told William during their meeting that he hoped his homeland would be a fully independent state by the next time he visited the Middle East.
“I’m very glad our two countries work so closely together and have had success stories with education and relief work in the past, so, long may that continue,” William told the president, risking Israeli anger over an apparent recognition of Palestinian statehood. The UK government does not recognise the Palestinian territories as a country, and the royal family is ostensibly apolitical.
The duke ended the day with a speech at the British consul-general’s residence in Jerusalem, in which he told Palestinians: “My message tonight is that you have not been forgotten … I hope that through my being here and understanding the challenges you face, the links of friendship and mutual respect between the Palestinian and British people will grow stronger.”
A DELICATE BALANCING ACT
Ahead of the trip, which the British Foreign Office hopes will build bridges, the Duke of Cambridge was faced with criticism from Israelis objecting to parts of his itinerary which referred to East Jerusalem as “Occupied Palestinian Territory,” as per British government policy. While this satisfied the Palestinians, it prompted Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin to call the name a “distortion” of his government’s belief of a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Israel captured east Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it in a move not internationally recognized. Israel considers the city, home to holy sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, as an inseparable part of its capital. The Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as their future capital.
Ambassador Quarrey insisted the wording merely reflected decades of terminology used by British governments. “It is important to emphasise that the Duke is not a political figure, this is not a political visit,” he said.
The trip also came under fire from Jerusalem deputy mayor Dov Kalmanovich for not including a meeting with local municipality representatives or the mayor, Nir Barkat, who is a backer of Jewish settlement in Arab neighbourhoods of the city. A spokeswoman for the UK embassy in Tel Aviv confirmed there would be no such meeting, but declined to specify why.
There were also questions around the timing of the trip with British officials “swearing blind” that it has nothing to do with “nothing to do with this year’s 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation”, the BBC reported.
Meanwhile, Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian diplomatic representative in London, claimed the visit will be considered as an “act of indirect apology” for the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the British statement of support for a Jewish homeland. Speaking to The Telegraph he said: “We don’t care about the official British interpretation, we care about our impression and what the Prince could do and what messages he conveys when he meets both sides.
“I think this is a historic and a symbolic visit for the Royal family to visit Occupied Palestine. It reflects that Palestine is a legitimate country and the struggle of the Palestinian people is a legitimate one.
“This visit symbolises the acknowledgement that Palestine and its people exist and they have the right to self-determination.”
“We hope the prince will be a bridge between Palestinians and Israelis when he visits both sides. Maybe his good office will bring us back together to the negotiating table.”