Behind the scenes with the Royal press pack for a historic moment I’ll never forget
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Behind the scenes with the Royal press pack for a historic moment I’ll never forget

Justin Cohen gives his personal take on what it's like to travel with His Royal Highness, during Prince William's landmark trip to the Middle East last June

Justin Cohen is the News Editor at the Jewish News

The Duke of Cambridge at the Western Wall, with Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, during a visit to Jerusalem's Old City.

Photo credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire
The Duke of Cambridge at the Western Wall, with Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, during a visit to Jerusalem's Old City. Photo credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Your Royal Highness, Sirs, Maams, ladies and gentlemen. Please remain seated until the fasten seat belt signs are switched off’.

That announcement on board RAF Voyager – the plane used by royals, prime ministers and now, briefly, Jewish News journalists – kicked off an extraordinary week for UK-Israel relations, Prince William, Anglo-Jewry and for me personally. Here’s just a few reasons why joining the royal press corp for the Duke’s historic five-day trip to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories made for a week like no other:

Travelling with His Royal Highness

 

Despite having to be at Brize Norton in Oxford for a 5.45 check-in, I couldn’t allow myself to nod off mid-air after the travelling royal correspondents suggested HRH would likely address us directly.

Our patience was rewarded when he came back to chat informally, mainly about the World Cup. In a nod to the focus often placed on his wife’s wardrobe, he joked about plans to ‘mix up’ his clothing during the tour ‘with different shades of blue’.

With all the pre-tour talk about the historic nature of the trip, it was a pleasure to see such a strikingly relaxed William. I even got a wave and a ‘hi Justin’ from across the aisle when he was introduced to the first-timers among the press pack.

On board the royal flight to Amman, HRH wasn’t the only one to receive treatment fit for a king.

One particularly attentive member of RAF staff explained to me he’d never before served kosher food, before whipping out a page-long checklist and his iPhone to reveal images of numerous trays of food just for me.

Someone had clearly heard the rumour that no Jew can get through a simcha – and what bigger simcha than the first royal visit to Israel – without a good fress.

The historic flight from Jordan to Israel the next day was a key reason why I was so keen to be part of the official delegation.

Twenty minutes – and two more trays of food – later it was a huge thrill to fly past an El Al jet on the tarmac and touch down for a visit 70 years in the making.

Historic but also deeply personal

If William embarked on this historic tour as just another part of his public duty it clearly became far more personal by the end.

Having visited his hero great-grandmother’s grave and met the descendants of the family she saved in the Shoah, he committed himself as a representative of the younger generation to keeping alive the memory of the Nazi horrors.

With fewer and fewer survivors left to tell their stories first-hand, it’s hard to overemphasise the importance of such a personal pledge from a figure with a truly global platform. It will be hugely comforting for those still with us to know he will follow in the footsteps of Prince Charles who has gone out of his way to honour and help survivors over the last decade.

The Duke of Cambridge lays a wreath as he visits the Yad Vashem: World Holocaust Center, Jerusalem​ as part of his tour of the Middle East.
Photo credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wi

Nothing can compare with seeing the region in person and it’s clear that meeting young Israelis and Palestinians left an indelible mark.

His message to the Palestinians that they’d not been forgotten – a last-minute addition in a trip that had been planned to the letter – showed the impact on him of talking to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza but also perhaps signalling a wish to adopt a less hands-less approach to politics than we’ve seen from the older generation of royals.

For me too, this was far more than a work trip. Hearing the Duke reflect with two Kindertransport evacuees on the heart-wrenching decision their parents faced in sending them to safety in the UK was particularly poignant for me as someone whose grandmother owed her life to the rescue operation, and who was determined her family knew what happened.

In stark contrast, HRH visited his great-grandmother’s final resting place on the Mount of Olives where my grandfather is also buried and delighted the crowds at Tel Aviv beach where so many of my friends love to enjoy down time.

Pirnce William laying flowers at Pricess Alice’s tomb
Credit: KensingtonRoyal on Twitter

It was a timely reminder of the unbreakable links between British Jews and Israel. Seeing the way Israelis cheered in their thousands at the beach and Rothschild Boulevard – despite not being known for their deference to power – was for me a heart-warming coming together of two very different worlds.

It’s one of the greatest parts of my job to cover news that matters so much to family and friends; you needed only look at the reaction on social media to know how much it meant to British Jews to see their future king at the Kotel.

The royal press pack

The royal press pack

For five days, Fleet Street’s finest royal waters balanced laptops on discarded shopping trollies in the Old City and schlepped bulky cameras on and off packed media buses to meet deadlines. The travelling group consisted of around 30 journalists, producers and photographers from almost every major UK broadcaster and newspaper – with the legendary snapper and uber mensch Arthur Edwards the unofficial ‘father’ of the group.

In the intensely competitive world of journalism, it was striking how close-knit the press corp were; for the first day it felt like I’d gate crashed a trip by a group of close friends rather than colleagues. This feeling was eased somewhat when a Jewish News story about the King David Hotel’s plans to welcome HRH with scones seemed, bizarrely, to dominate the trip’s news agenda on the second evening.

The Telegraph, Sun and CNN were among those to pick up on scones exclusive – there’s a line I never expected to write! My full integration was complete, one fellow journo observed, when I started to share their frustration at the ‘pool’ system where outlets take it in turns to get the best position to cover the action.

Being part of the pool is akin to winning Willy Wonka’s golden ticket, I soon discovered. With a 16-page supplement to fill, I was granted a coveted spot for key events including HRH’s meeting with young Jewish and Arab footballers but the schedule indicated it wouldn’t also be possible to also cover his visit to Frishman beach immediately afterwards.

Justin taking a snap of the Prince on the beach

Determined not to miss what had the hallmarks of a tour highlight, however, I left the Jaffa football field early and hailed a taxi but found myself in rush-hour traffic. Hearing the sirens of the royal motorcade behind me, I sprinted up the coastline in 30 degree heat, arriving at Frishman as William got out the car to excited screams from beach-goers.

There’s nowhere I’d rather have been, but there’s nothing like arriving at an event in a sweaty mess to remind you that covering a royal tour isn’t always as glamorous as it sounds.

Very often royal visits can be dominated by ‘fluffy’ stories; this was anything but.

The travelling pack – many of whom had never previously visited Israel – seemed genuinely moved to have been part of such a historic event and that was reflected in the overwhelmingly positive nature of the coverage, despite the regional backdrop.

Many even talked about returning to the country privately, if only to sample the Tel Aviv nightlife that William missed out on.

It was great fun to been so warmly welcomed into the group and to have helped as a sort of unofficial advisor on all things Jewish; from pigeon Hebrew to getting about the country to the impact of the trip back home.

At least until the chief rabbi and his team joined us.

Now I just need to figure out the Jewish angle so I can join the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s upcoming tour of Australia and New Zealand.

From impossibility to resounding success

For decades we were led to believe this visit was beyond reach while a full peace eluded Israel and the Palestinians. But William broke new ground, he learnt, he pressed flesh, people on all sides revelled in his presence – and nothing and noone spontaneously combusted! He did so without ignoring the elephant in the region: politics. It was proof of what many had long argued that there was no need for Israel to have been long singled out as a no-go zone.

That those at the highest levels of government in Israel and the PA were on their best behaviour in the build-up (even the labelling of the Mount of Olives as being part of the OPTs didn’t produce public criticism from ministers) and throughout is a measure not only of the delight that such a visit was finally taking place but of a carefully calibrated programme.

He told the world some truths that often get lost in a one-dimensional perception of the region; that Israel is a “vibrant” hub of innovation with burgeoning ties to the UK that are keeping both peoples safer. And that just seeing Tel Aviv’s beaches are enough to make even a future king want to whip out his trunks. But also that the Palestinians people don’t have it easy.

For which he didn’t seek to apportion blame. This visit provided a spotlight for Britain to send out some not so subtle messages about its very different approach to the conflict compared to Trump.

Who knows what was said behind closed doors but one must hope his message to Mahmoud Abbas included profound concerns about the sick practise of financially rewarding terrorists’ families, for a start.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sits down with the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William

It was above all a programme that enabled William to do what he set out to do – focus on young people.

But by the time he surprised a number of barmitzvah boys by gate crashing their religious coming-of-age ceremonies on the final morning at the kotel, there was an mistakable sense of the prince coming of age of the world stage.

Travelling solo, without the cameras trained on Charlotte’s next cute wave, it felt like the start of a baton change from Prince Charles and his eldest son in terms of leading on royal relations with the various faith communities and of the second-in-line following in his mother’s footsteps in terms of caring for those affected by conflict. No one is going to hold their breath believing this prince has a magic wand but if he does choose to take a longer term interest in the lives of the peoples he met, the soft power he wields could just be effective. As could his ability to bring along the Saudis and Jordanians with which he has personal links.

For now though, the success of this trip is beyond doubt. And that is down to the efforts of people like William’s outgoing private secretary Miguel Head and advisor Sir David Manning, Ambassadors David Quarrey and Mark Regev, among others. Hopefully we won’t have to wait decades for the next royal visit. For me, as a proud Brit and a proud Jew with a passion for Israel, it was the privilege of my career to have a front row seat for this historic moment.

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