Just picture the scene - Kensington Palace officials and British diplomats excitedly recce the itinerary for the Duke of Cambridge’s historic visit as his Middle East hosts are plunged into crisis.
Riots erupted across Jordan protesting a new tax regime and reduced food and fuel subsidies. Crowds attacked police stations and rampaged through normally peaceful towns. King Abdullah sacrificed his Prime Minister and reviewed the IMF inspired economic package intended to stabilise Jordan’s swelling debts, exacerbated by an influx of more than a million refugees from neighbouring Syria.
Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement that misrules Gaza, edged closer to war with Israel. Not content with weeks of riots attacking the Israeli border, resulting in the shooting of more than 120 Palestinians by Israeli soldiers, Hamas and Islamic Jihad fired 145 missiles at Israeli communities, the most extensive attack for four years.
In the Palestinian Authority, in the West Bank where Prince William will visit, rumours spread that President Mahmoud Abbas was gravely ill. The 84-year-old Abbas is 13 years into a four-year term of office and has no deputy or chosen successor. His departure from the scene would spark a bitter struggle within his own Fatah movement while it fights off a bid by Hamas to capitalise on the uncertainty and mount a coup to take control of the West Bank as well as Gaza.
All three crises calmed down this week and President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, visited Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to encourage ideas to improve the situation in Gaza and generate support for the long awaited US plan to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. However, the Palestinians have shunned the US team since last December when President Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announced his intent to move the US embassy there.
As William arrives in Israel today, the country is still on the brink of a major war in Gaza. Palestinian leaders in Gaza and the West Bank engage in open hostility. Israel doesn’t speak to Hamas and is far from a return to substantive talks with the Palestinian Authority, even though they cooperate on security and much else.
The good news for Prince William is he is not a politician or a diplomat. He is not expected to get involved in any of this. He is visiting the region to strengthen alliances and celebrate the UK’s contribution. But perhaps more importantly he can sprinkle his stardust and shine a much-needed spotlight on the crucial people to people projects that get ignored in the usual focus on high politics.
What is the UK contribution? In an era of Brexit uncertainty it’s fashionable in some quarters to underestimate our impact. But these are partnerships we should celebrate, because to our allies in the region they matter. In Jordan we provide £93million in aid for refugees, training for Jordan’s military in the fight against ISIS and steadfast diplomatic support. In the Palestinian Authority we contribute £70million of aid for healthcare, education and support to help build a civil society that will be vital to underpin a successful Palestinian state. Britain is one of few countries that enjoys close, trusted relations with both Israel and the Palestinian Authority and provides vital aid for Gaza.
The $9billion UK-Israel trade relationship is booming particularly in tech, healthcare, life sciences and cyber security. The defence and security relationship is closer than ever before. Israel shares intelligence to tackle terrorism and supports our operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority have a curious triangular relationship. Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty 24 years ago but a final peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians has never been reached. A secure Jordan is vital for Israeli security but the Palestinians sit in the middle, wary of both. The reality is no peace deal can be achieved without Jordanian input and support. Prince William’s visit to all three places is a timely acknowledgement of their shared destiny to live together and their shared responsibility for each other’s future.
Israeli-Palestinian relations are often viewed by their leaders as a zero sum game. So it is ironic that Israelis and Palestinians will join in mutual celebration for their first ever official visit by a member of the royal family. Even today that symbolism and ceremony will be a welcome seal of approval, the sign of an enduring bilateral bond that is ever more important in a Middle East beset by chaos and war.
Prince William will meet kings, presidents and prime ministers. He will tour ancient ruins, pay his respects at the holocaust remembrance centre in Jerusalem and have a private tour of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City. Above all, he has prioritised young people and visiting projects that are trying to create the Middle East of the future. He will meet young Syrian refugees in Jordan, a Jewish-Arab teenage football project in Jaffa, young Israeli entrepreneurs in Tel Aviv and celebrate Palestinian culture with young Palestinians in Ramallah.
By visiting each of these in turn he can carefully wield his immense soft power to put them under the spotlight and give them all much needed focus and attention. He will also, perhaps unintentionally, send a powerful message that these young people, living less than 150 miles apart, have the same hopes and the same dreams.
If their parents can’t solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict then they will inherit it, and it will be their generation who will either continue it, or make the painful concessions to end it.
James Sorene is CEO of BICOM - an independent British think tank producing research and analysis to increase understanding of Israel and the Middle East in the UK.