For constitutional royals with no overt power, the trick is how to visit a conflict zone, say nothing and get away with it. The royal family has hitherto made a strong statement by refusing official visits to Israel for 70 years, just as Prince Charles made a statement by staying away from the state banquet for President Xi Jinping of China in 2015 over his long-held objection to China’s treatment of Tibet. Does the Prince of Wales feel the same way about the Occupied Territories and is this why it is William, not Charles, who is going?
Prince William will be visiting territory under belligerent occupation, over which Britain does not recognize anyone’s sovereignty. This includes, for those who may have forgotten, East Jerusalem. It is a far cry from the easy public relations tours he enjoyed on previous visits to countries such as Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Norway and Sweden. Thankfully for the diplomats, Prince William is more than capable of playing the role allotted to him. He is unlikely to go off the acceptable diplomatic piste.
The language to be used is already under forensic examination. Kensington Palace tweeted that Prince William will visit the “Occupied Palestinian Territories,” while a Hebrew press release went with a visit to the “Palestinian Authority.” Nobody would dare utter the word Palestine. One fears that the Israeli paper that snootily referred to a “stopover” at the Palestinian Authority may be right; the Palestinians are entitled to a quick glimpse, for which they should be eternally grateful.
To be proved wrong, Prince William would have to engage in a proper visit to “Palestine,” not a just a few hours of photo ops. For example, a tour that might include not just the green zone of Ramallah, but also East Jerusalem with Palestinian guides, Bethlehem (not just the Church of the Holy Nativity), Jericho perhaps, a refugee camp, communities affected by the wall or threatened by demolition, and maybe even some of the excellent fair trade cooperatives producing Palestine’s finest olive oil.
Prince William could use Middle East trip to speak out for peace, freedom, human rights and dignity for Palestinians, and challenge Israel to change the status quo, but sadly he will not.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect will, as ever with the Holy Land, be the history. Israel will still be in the throes of celebrating its 70th anniversary, which of course for Palestinians is the 70th commemoration of the Nakba, when 70 percent of the population became refugees. One assumes William will rightly go to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, but will he also mark in any way Palestinian suffering and loss?
The royal family has always had its concerns about a formal visit to Israel, as opposed to a private visit when Prince Charles attended Shimon Peres’ funeral in 2016. He also made a very private visit to the grave of his grandmother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, who is buried on the Mount of Olives. Leaked emails in 2007 revealed the thinking of one of Charles’s key aides about any visit by the Prince of Wales, saying “acceptance (of the Israeli invitation) would make it hard to avoid the many ways in which Israel would want HRH (Charles) to help burnish its international image.”
Quite what has changed is hard to figure out. Israel is still in massive breach of international law, entrenches its 50-year-old occupation, colonizes it in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and has Gaza under blockade. If Prince William makes a speech, will he dare mention the “O” word? Getting British government ministers to do so is tough enough, yet the West Bank could not be more occupied and parts of it even face annexation.
The British government appears desperate to advance ties with countries with whom it hopes to sign post-Brexit free trade agreements, and Israel is near the top of that list. But it does show also the trajectory is still going in one direction — a total and utter lack of regard for Palestinian rights and freedoms.
Palestinians do not appear excited. One Palestinian friend observed that “what happens in planet Ramallah will be of little interest to the hell of the rest of the West Bank and Gaza.” No doubt some in the Instagram-mad generation will be hooked, but for the most part it is hard to see why Palestinians should be that excited.
What will worry Palestinians politically is that this is yet another step forward in Israel’s normalization in international relations, showing that its routine violations of international law and denial of Palestinian freedom is acceptable and can just be ignored.
Of course Prince William could lance that fear by addressing it head-on. He could speak out for peace, freedom, human rights and dignity for Palestinians. He could use his exalted position and undoubted popularity to challenge Israel to change the status quo. He could but, sadly, he won’t.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech