By Arab News
By Osama Al-Sharif*
When it comes to British royal Prince William’s historic visit to Palestine and Israel this week, it is difficult not to politicize what has been described as a non-political event.
The second in line to the British throne could hardly miss the irony of the first official visit by a British royal to the holy land; a place that has been the vortex of massive regional turbulence for more than 70 years. Britain’s relationship to the birth of Israel and the destitution of millions of Palestinians is impossible to ignore or whitewash. While Israelis celebrate their “independence” from British colonial rule, Palestinians will always view Britain as a willing instigator of their ongoing plight.
The royal visit comes at the behest of the British government. In Israel, Prince William navigated his way so as to avoid making statements that would either offend or glorify his hosts at the expense of Palestinians struggling for independence not far away from King David Hotel, where he was staying. But both Israelis and Palestinians sought to make gains from the visit. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is said to have asked Prince William to carry a message of peace to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah. And, for some Palestinians at least, the arrival of the British royal was seen as an indirect apology for British sins against them. The symbolism of Prince William’s visit to the Occupied Territories could not be missed.
But symbolism and gestures will not change reality — especially for the Palestinians. Only last year, the British Conservative government celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration that promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. The notorious letter by British Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild is seen by Palestinians as legitimizing the usurpation of their land. Last year, Abbas demanded an apology from Britain; it was not forthcoming.
So it is difficult to interpret the meaning of Prince William’s visit to the holy land. On the one hand, his itinerary described East Jerusalem as occupied, to the indignation of Israeli ministers. On the other, visiting Israel a few weeks after the US moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and as Israelis celebrated 70 years of existence as a state, at the same time Palestinians marked seven decades of their own Nakba, or catastrophe — could be seen as a reward for Israel’s extremist government.
The visit comes at a time when tensions between Israel and the Palestinians reached dangerous levels. The prospects for peace and a just end to the conflict have never been so remote. The preamble to US President Donald Trump’s much-touted “ultimate deal” reeks of conscious bias in favor of Israel’s far right, which does not recognize the two-state solution or the right of Palestinians to their own state on their ancestral land. As much as Prince William’s visit is seen as non-political, one must admit that, when it comes to the intractable Israel-Palestine conflict, everything is political.
And then there is the official British position on the conflict. Britain, with its historical connection to the region, has failed to step forward and acknowledge its role in causing injury to generations of the Palestinian people. Its stand on the two-state solution and illegal settlement construction in the West Bank is not enough. Its support of the Palestinian Authority pales in comparison to its close relationship with Israel, which even the British public is sometimes baffled by.
Britain, like the EU, has rejected Palestinian pleas to recognize East Jerusalem as its future capital in the wake of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the eternal capital of Israel. Both believe that the future of East Jerusalem must be decided through negotiations. But we are far from an even-handed settlement to the occupation while all Israeli political parties agree that Jerusalem will never be divided. And, in the words of Trump, Jerusalem is now off the table.
Britain must adopt a more progressive position on the Palestinian issue because of its historical connection to the roots of the conflict. That day may not be far away. Coinciding with Prince William’s visit to the region, the head of the British opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, toured the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. He declared that the United Kingdom would swiftly “recognize Palestine as a state” under a Labour government, adding that he would take steps toward “a genuine two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “very early on” if his party won a general election. Given the unpredictable nature of British elections, Corbyn may be asked to follow his words with deeds sooner rather than later.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.