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Priti Patel’s resignation fails to lift veil over secret Israeli meetings

24th Nov 2017
Priti Patel’s resignation fails to lift veil over secret Israeli meetings

Priti Patel was forced to resign as UK International Development Secretary after holding 12 unauthorised meetings in Israel including one with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo: Commons)

Hamed Chapman

Development Secretary, Priti Patel, was forced out of Theresa May’s cabinet for covering up the extent of her clandestine meetings with Israeli officials despite initial attempts to underplay her serious breaches of her ministerial responsibilities, according to wide and varying reports.

“I accept that in meeting with organisations and politicians during a private holiday in Israel my actions fell below the high standards that are expected of a Secretary of State,” the Harrow-born MP said in her resignation letter, referring to what she said after being summoned to the Prime Minister’s office twice in three days. “While my actions were meant with the best of intentions, my actions also fell below the standards of transparency and openness that I have promoted and advocated.”

In response, May said that on their first meeting she had originally been “glad to accept your apology and welcomed your clarification about your trip to Israel over the summer.” But added that since “further details have come to light, it is right that you have decided to resign and adhere to the high standards of transparency and openness that you have advocated.”

The effective sacking was choreographed by the media after she had been ordered back to London in the middle of a trip to Kenya. Not only were her series of meetings with Israeli officials not formally disclosed let alone sanctioned, they were seemingly outside of her remit and most seriously in breach of being accompanied by civil servants to minute what was said and agreed.

Britain’s first Indian Minister, as May described her, was effectively acting as a lone wolf without any checks. The meetings, held while she was supposed to be on a family holiday, were held with high ranking Israeli politicians including the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as lobbyists. It later transpired that she had others such meeting at the UN in New York as well as in London.

Yet the picture was far from clear with Patel apparent first claiming that the Foreign Office was aware of them before it was denied. The Jewish Chronicle even accused the British premier of covering up herself what she knew about Patel’s series of meetings that were understood to have been set up by the vice-president of the Conservative Friends of Israel lobbying group. It seems that there were no less at least 14 meetings but the weekly reported that it was May’s office who instructed the former International Development Secretary not to mention those outside Israel until they leaked out too.

In the deliberately confusing picture, questions still remained about how much May knew, even regarding the bizarre offer Patel was apparently making to funnel British taxpayer-funded foreign aid to Israeli projects, including to the Israeli army in the occupied Golan Heights where she also reportedly visited but again was initially not mentioned to avoid embarrassment with the Foreign Office and official policy that deems the annexation of Golan Heights by Israel as illegal.

Despite the severity of her offences and breaches of ministerial code, the British media seemed to be more focused and concerned about the effects of the Prime Minister losing a second minister within a week and the imbalance of her Government between Brexiteers and remainers rather than Patel’s extraordinary behaviour that was described by some as potentially treasonous.

“In hindsight, I can see how my enthusiasm to engage in this way could be misread, and how meetings were set up and reported in a way which did not accord with the usual procedures. I am sorry for this and I apologise for it,” her first mea culpa statement read. Even when she was caught telling an untruth that Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, had been made aware of the meetings, she only eventually admitted that she “may have given the impression that the Secretary of State had informed the Foreign Secretary about the visit in advance … (but he ) did become aware of the visit, but not in advance of it.”

The whole episode was particularly delicate as the clandestine meetings leaked out on the day after Netanyahu had visited May in Downing Street. It became even more awkward as it turned out that Patel had asked her officials to look at giving British aid to the Israeli army. Her deputy, Alistair Burt, rapidly distanced himself from such a suggestion, insisting that his “department’s view is that aid to the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) in the (occupied) Golan Heights is not appropriate, we don’t do that, and that was the advice given to the secretary of state.”

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