Why does the British Royal Family visit Saudi Arabia but not Israel?
Members of the Royal family regularly visit authoritarian Arab states, but they have never made an official trip to Israel
Photo: Getty Images
When Prince Charles threaded through the hallways of last week’s climate change conference in Paris, he swapped ideas with world leaders on how to confront the dangers of a warming planet.
But Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, had something else on his mind. During a brief meeting, he invited the Prince of Wales to pay an official visit to Israel.
Mr. Netanyahu’s offer – like dozens of others extended by Israeli leaders to the Royal family – is unlikely to be taken up.
In the 67 years since Israel was founded in territory once controlled by Britain, no member of the Royal family has ever visited in an official capacity. While Prince Charles and others have occasionally set foot in Israel, Buckingham Palace and the British Government have been at pains to stress they were personal visits and not official ones.
The rejected invitations are a source of deep frustration for Israel, especially as the Royal family has made high-profile visits to authoritarian regional neighbours like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as Charles did in February.
“We’re the only democracy in the Middle East and so you ask why do the Royals go to the Arab dictatorships around us but they don’t come here?” said one Israeli official.
The issue is sometimes raised by exasperated commentators in the Israeli media. “Is there another member state of the United Nations that the British Royals have so consistently and assiduously snubbed in this way?” asked David Landau, an Anglo-Israeli journalist.
In 1997, Ezer Weizman, then Israel’s president, paid a state visit to Britain. These visits are usually reciprocated – yet Britain has pointedly ignored this particular tradition in the case of Israel.
Dror Zeigerman, then Israel’s ambassador to London, recalled that the Queen got along well with Mr. Weizman during a banquet at Buckingham Palace, recalling how the latter served in the RAF during the Second World War.
“We sat together and I remember he invited the Queen to come to Israel and she said she would be happy to come,” said Mr. Zeigerman. “But that was nearly 20 years ago and there’s been no visit.”
The explanation for the absence is acutely sensitive. The Queen’s official visits are coordinated by the Government of the day and reflect foreign policy priorities, not her personal preferences.
A spokesman for Buckingham Palace said: “All overseas visits by members of the Royal family are undertaken on the advice of the British Government.”
Photo: Oleg Popov/Reuters
The Foreign Office declined to comment, but British officials say there are too many political landmines in the way of a visit to a country that occupies Palestinian territory and lives within disputed borders.
“Until there is a settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the Royal family can’t really go there,” said one Whitehall source.
“There have been inward State Visits by Israel, which just involves dealing with the Head of State, but in Israel, so much politics is caught up in the land itself that it’s best to avoid those complications altogether by not going there.”
A trip to Jerusalem by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1994 illustrates some of the difficulties.
His mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, is buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and Prince Phillip went to visit her grave.
The princess is revered in Israel because she opened the doors of her Athens palace to a Jewish family seeking refuge from the Nazis during the Second World War.
She is counted as one of the “Righteous Among Nations”, an Israeli title that was given to those who saved Jews from Nazi death camps. Today, she is honoured at Israel’s national Holocaust memorial alongside Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who rescued hundreds of Jews and inspired the film Schindler’s List.
But despite Israel’s warm feelings towards his mother, Buckingham Palace said the Duke’s visit was private and he was not there in an official capacity.
The contorted explanation mirrors Jerusalem’s own tortured geography. The Mount of Olives is in the eastern side of the city, which Israel captured in 1967. Israel claims East Jerusalem as part of its “complete and united” capital, but Britain considers the area to be occupied territory.
Any Royal visit would also have to be balanced by meetings with the Palestinian Authority, which brings a new set of sensitivities. Boris Johnson discovered the possible pitfalls last month when he was forced to cancel meetings in the West Bank after angering Palestinians by denouncing calls for a boycott of Israeli goods.
Some Israelis have long believed that the Foreign Office blocks any Royal visits because of its supposed domination by Arabist diplomats.
Emails sent by one of Prince Charles’s aides in 2007 also hint at suspicions among Royal staff that Israel would try to make political capital out of a visit.
Clive Alderton, the Prince’s deputy private secretary, warned that Royal aides should not visit Israel in case it created expectations of a visit by the Prince of Wales himself.
Photo: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
“Safe to assume there is no chance of this visit ever actually happening?” Mr Alderton wrote. “Acceptance would make it hard to avoid the many ways in which Israel would want [Prince Charles] to help burnish its international image.”
The exchange was leaked to the Jewish Chronicle, forcing Clarence House into an embarrassing clarification.
One former British official said the government sees the offer of a Royal visit as a bargaining chip that could be redeemed in return for business or political deals. “They are a kind of currency in foreign policy,” he said
While Saudi Arabia is a large buyer of British weapons and professional services, Israel is not. There may there simply be less of an incentive for the Government to deploy a Royal visit.
Some also suggest that official visits are easier in countries with their own monarchs, who can act as natural hosts for the Queen or her family. That may be true, but the Royal family regularly visits republics like France and the US. Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall even visited Egypt in 2006, while it was ruled by Hosni Mubarak, the dictator who was toppled five years later.
For the foreseeable future, the prospects of a Royal visit to Israel seem dim, especially as the peace process with the Palestinians continues to stagnate. But it is worth remembering that Ireland was once seen as out of bounds for Royal travel, only for the Queen to make a hugely successful visit in 2011.
At the age of 89, the Queen is travelling less frequently. But Israelis are hopeful that either the Prince of Wales or the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge might visit one day. There is one possible straw in the wind: this year Prince Charles decided to become a patron of World Jewish Relief, a global charity.
“The invitation has been on the table for 67 years and we hope that one day it will be taken up,” said Aliza Lavie, a member of the Israeli parliament for the Yesh Atid opposition party. “It would be a privilege to have them here and they would be welcome in Israel anytime.”