SIMON JOHNSON

William’s eager to learn, but Corbyn clearly isn’t

FOR all the gloom around the community about the challenges we face and the issues relating to antisemitism in the Labour Party, there is something that we can be proud and joyful about.

It allows us to look to the future with some confidence and satisfaction.

The visit to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories by the Duke of Cambridge was, in its own right, a hugely significant event, which will live long in the memory.

The images from that trip, covered in the Jewish Telegraph, will become iconic, cementing the increasingly close bond between the UK and Israel.

They will appear in tourism and promotional videos about Israel for years to come. We will not forget the pictures of His Royal Highness laying a wreath at Yad Vashem, engaging in a moment of contemplation at the Kotel, playing footvolley on Tel Aviv beach or meeting Eurovision Song Contest winner Netta Barzilai on Rothschild Boulevard.

But what adds to the significance of this first official royal visit to Israel in the 70-year history of the state is that it is the third high-level engagement between the UK and Israel in six months.

This indicates a permanent thawing of the previous Foreign Office hostility to close government and royal engagement with Israel.

Over the course of six months, we have seen the UK prime minister attend an official dinner to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, with the Israeli prime minister a guest at the same event. We had the honour of welcoming the Prince of Wales to the Royal Albert Hall, to help the community mark the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel.

Then, of course, the Duke of Cambridge, the second in line to the throne, conducted the first-ever royal visit to Israel.

This is worthy of great pride among our community. For all this to happen, there needed to be more than just smart lobbying by the Jewish Leadership Council and others. There needed to be a strong trading relationship between the UK and Israel.

The permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office is a former UK ambassador to Israel. The current UK ambassador to Israel is a former head of the Middle East desk at the FCO. The current head of the Middle East and Levant desk is a pragmatic diplomat.

The current Minister for the Middle East is Alistair Burt, a friend of the community with a sharp and realistic grasp of the issues in the region.

And the prime minister and Duke of Cambridge, with their advisers, are fully cognisant of the important relationship between the UK and Israel.

So Prince William’s visit, which was full of diplomatic banana skins, was pitch perfect.

Benefiting from the advice of all the people mentioned earlier, HRH conducted a visit full of symbolism and diplomacy without a foot being put wrong.

He first went to Jordan where he met local people, visited historic sites and charmed all who met him. From there, he went to Israel and to the Palestinian territories. While there, he again met ordinary people, both young and old. He experienced the best of each country and learned of co-existence projects and of the energy and vibrancy of the people of the region.

His visit imbued hope, promoted peace and enabled the future monarch to learn of the potential of this region and of the will for peace of the two peoples. His speeches were warm and hopeful. In fact, I suspect they will have a profound and lasting effect.

Peace comes when the people will it and when strong leaders achieve it. This royal visit may have provided motivation to the leaders on both sides to make a renewed effort to achieve the peace and co-existence, the potential for which was evident in William’s visit.

Someone else was in Jordan last weekend. That was the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn. He visited a Palestinian refugee camp, created in 1968. While there, he set out aspects of the Labour Party’s policy on the Middle East, including the recognition of a Palestinian state.

He did not, however, take the opportunity to go to Israel or the Palestinian territories. He did not take the opportunity to learn about the people of Israel, or about the complexities of the political situation. He did not explore with Israeli leaders what might be the blocks to the achievement of peace.

He was 30 minutes away from Israel by air, or two hours by car. He did say, in an interview with Sky News, that he would be “happy to visit anywhere and everywhere, including Israel”.

He seemed to disregard the fact that he has been invited to Israel many times. He has an open invitation issued by the-then leader of the Israeli Labour Party, Isaac Herzog.

He has been invited by the president of the Board of Deputies to visit Yad Vashem. The chairman of the JLC personally invited him to Israel at a meeting with him on April 24.

He missed a perfect opportunity to broaden his knowledge of this region. He chose, instead, to stick to his political comfort zone, which is the undiluted narrative of the Palestinian leadership.

In his public statement, this narrative included him saying that the “Palestinian right of return must become a reality”.

This is a hugely emotive point on both sides. For, in the Palestinian narrative, the right of return extends to any descendant of any person who left their home at or after the creation of Israel in 1948.

The Israelis argue that such a policy is inconsistent with a two-state solution, something which Mr Corbyn states that he strongly supports. It has been one of the reasons why various peace proposals presented by Israel over the years have been rejected by the Palestinians.

If Mr Corbyn aspires to be a statesman rather than an activist, he has to realise that there are no political conflicts where the narrative of one side is always right and the other side is always wrong. Mr Corbyn appears neither to have, nor to seek, any understanding of the Israeli position on these issues.

That he missed this opportunity speaks volumes about his willingness to learn anything outside his own narrow view of foreign policy.

It was the one blot on an otherwise uplifting week.


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