Not since the days of the British Mandate – and perhaps not even then – has the Union Jack been as prominent in Jerusalem as it is this week to mark what has been touted as the first official visit to Israel by a member of the British Royal Family – a potential future king no less
Admittedly, there were a lot of British flags waving in the wind during visits by a series of British prime ministers – but on Hanasi Street, which covers the short stretch from the Van Leer Institute to Hapalmach Street, there were more than a dozen Union Jacks on both sides of the road, plus even more in the grounds of the President’s Residence and inside the building itself.
While there’s no doubt that the visit by Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, is historic since it’s official, the truth of the matter is that British princes have been visiting Jerusalem for more than 150 years.
The first was Prince Albert Edward, the eldest son of Queen Victoria, who was then the 21-year-old Prince of Wales, later becoming King Edward VII. Places that he visited during his four-month tour of the Middle East during the first half of 1862 included Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Nablus and the Galilee. In fact, an enlarged photograph of him taken during that visit was on view in the small reception room where Prince William signed the guest book while sitting at a table that had belonged to British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, who had a strong bond with Prince William’s great-great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria.
Some twenty years later, Edward VII’s sons Prince Albert Victor and Prince George followed in his footsteps and made a similar journey.
Prince William’s grandfather, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and the husband of Queen Elizabeth II, was in Jerusalem in 1994 for a Yad Vashem ceremony honoring his late mother Princess Alice. The following year, William’s father Prince Charles came for the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin. And in 2007, Prince Edward, Charles’ youngest brother, came on a working visit. Prince Charles came again in 2016 for the funeral of Shimon Peres.
So, all in all, the British royals have not exactly ignored Jerusalem.
In fact President Reuven Rivlin told Prince William that his father had twice been a guest at the President’s Residence.
AWARE THAT Rivlin is a great soccer fan and that his favorite British team is Liverpool, the prince who actually supports Aston Villa, presented the president with a Liverpool Football Club shirt signed by club legend and former team captain Steven Gerrard. Rivlin said that when he was manager of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, he had quite a few dealings with Liverpool
Speaking of aspects of the British legacy that Israel had adopted after the Mandate, such as the British legal system, Rivlin said: “The only thing we didn’t adopt was premier league football.”
The president and the prince discussed soccer in both their open and private meetings. They were able to speak undisturbed in the garden, which among other things contains trees planted by popes and by presidents of the United States, plus a hybrid tree of figs and olives.
Rivlin later told reporters that he and the prince had talked about the outcome of the World Cup currently being contested in Russia, but neither of them had dared hazard a guess as to which team might win because there have been too many surprises so far.
In their public conversation Rivlin told the prince that he was in a land that has known a lot of history but “today, you are writing a new page of history.”
Rivlin asked the prince, who is visiting Ramallah on Wednesday, to take a message to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and tell him that it’s about time to find a way to build confidence.
Repeating the mantra that he has uttered almost daily since his election as president, Rivlin told the prince that Israelis and Palestinians are not doomed to live together, but rather that “We are destined to live together.” He also reiterated that the Palestinians have to understand that the Jewish people have returned to their ancient homeland.
The prince, for his part, was very careful to refrain from saying anything that could be construed as political, other than to voice the hope that peace would come to the region.
He said he was interested in meeting as many Israelis as possible and in learning about Israeli history and culture.
HE DESCRIBED his tour of Yad Vashem earlier in the day as “very moving,” saying that it taught him a lot more than he thought he knew about the horrors of what had been done to Jews during the war.
Though not personally familiar with the horrors of war, the prince, who trained at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, later served as a flight lieutenant in the helicopter search and rescue unit of the RAF. This came up in his private discussion with Rivlin; the president said of him later, “He really knows what soldiering is all about.”
Among the people in the prince’s entourage was Sir David Manning, who from 1995-1998 was British ambassador to Israel and later foreign policy advisor to prime minister Tony Blair. He is currently the foreign affairs advisor at Kensington Palace.
Standing in the main reception hall at the President’s Residence – with which he had once been familiar – Manning looked around, absorbing the changes that had been introduced by Peres, Rivlin’s predecessor.
Before he left, the prince was presented with a copy of an album of photographs taken during the 1862 visit of the Prince of Wales together with a facsimile of a newspaper clipping describing the welcome he received. What was particularly interesting about the clipping was that the author of the article was Yosef Rivlin, the great-grandfather of the president.
Rivlin, who escorted the prince to his car, twice bowed deeply from the waist before he said goodbye.
As Rivlin had told the prince early in their conversation, when he was born in Jerusalem in September 1939, he was a British subject. Perhaps the formalities that he had witnessed until he was almost nine years old have stayed with him.•