International Development Secretary Priti Patel has resigned after holding a series of meetings with Israeli ministers and IDF commanders under the radar of British diplomats during a private visit to Israel in August.
Patel, a former vice-chair of Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), was accompanied to 12 meetings by former CFI director Lord Polak during a trip she at first claimed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office knew about, only to admit this week that it didn’t.
The Secretary of State, known to harbour Tory leadership ambitions, was conspicuous by her absence in the House of Commons on Tuesday, as questions rained in from the Labour benches amid a notable lack of support from fellow Tories.
Patel was on a trade visit to Africa, having first been given a dressing down by Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday for concealing her trip, and a line appeared to have been drawn under the affair when Patel apologised.
But on Wednesday she was ordered back to London, after an enraged Downing Street learned of further details surrounding the trip, including Patel’s two subsequent meetings with an Israeli minister and the head of Israel’s foreign ministry, again without British officials present.
It emerged that Patel met IDF commanders in the Golan Heights, a territory not recognised as Israeli by the British government. Further, Patel also met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, something British Prime Minister Theresa May had not known about before she hosted Netanyahu in London last week.
Among Patel’s illicit meetings while on “a private holiday” were with Gilad Erdan, the Minister for Public Security, Information and Strategic Affairs, whose department has been cracking down on critical non-governmental organisations, some of whom receive British government funding. Patel later met him again in London.
Among Patel’s other meetings when in Israel were with Yair Lapid, the centrist politician and leader of Yesh Atid who is widely tipped as a future Israeli prime minister, and Yuval Rotem, the director-general at Israel’s foreign ministry. This week it emerged she met Rotem again a month later, in September, at the United Nations in New York.
Israeli Ambassador to the UK Mark Regev told Jewish News: “We heard that she was on a private holiday in Israel and my prime minister wanted to meet her.”
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former foreign secretary who – like Patel – spoke at the Jewish News-BICOM UK-Israel Policy Conference in Westminster last week, said it was not in itself unusual to hold business meetings with a country’s leaders while on holiday, adding that he did likewise several times.
However, he said: “What made it unacceptable was the fact that she not only did not inform the Foreign Office but the local British ambassador didn’t know either. If you’re a Secretary of State having meetings with ministers of another country, the ambassador keeps a record of the meeting. If you’re not accompanied, you won’t have that record, which is in itself very foolish. It’s just common sense.”
Patel, 45, angered MPs after it emerged that on her return to the UK she argued for the British Government to give some of its aid budget to the Israeli army because the IDF was helping victims of the Syrian war in the Golan Heights.
Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, asked: “How could a cabinet minister try to funnel funding for one side and pretend the other side is not existing?”
She appears to have been unaware that the British Government does not recognise Israel’s annexation of the territory, with Rifkind saying this made it “a textbook example of why it shouldn’t have happened… if she didn’t know, she should have realised that she was dealing with an area of high sensitivity on foreign policy”.
Rifkind explained that it was “almost certain” that Patel had not confined discussions to matters relating to her Department for International Development, adding that “although Israel is a good friend, there are differences of view and areas of potential tension, so you simply don’t do it if you’re not the minister with responsibility for that policy, and you certainly don’t do it without your own government knowing about it.”
Last year Patel froze Britain’s aid budget to the Palestinians pending the outcome of an inquiry into the recipients of UK taxpayers’ money, after allegations that the aid was in fact going to convicted Palestinian terrorists in the form of salaries.
On Wednesday morning, as she flew back to the UK, Patel’s department posted her mea culpa on the DFID website, in which she blamed her “enthusiasm” for the scandal.
“In hindsight, I can see how my enthusiasm to engage in this way could be mis-read, and how meetings were set up and reported in a way which did not accord with the usual procedures,” she said.
“I am sorry for this and I apologise for it. My first and only aim as the Secretary of State for International Development is to put the interests of British taxpayers and the world’s poor at the front of our development work.”
She said she also met businesses, tech start-ups, NGOs and charities in a series of meetings arranged by the Conservative peer Lord Polak, a former CFI director. Rifkind, himself a Tory grandee, said that while the CFI had not been damaged by the scandal, Polak had.
“He’s been a very successful individual, I’ve got a lot of admiration for much of the work he’s done, but on this occasion I think was extremely unwise.
“I don’t know where the initiative began from, whether with him or Priti Patel, but the fact that he personally was involved in arranging and attending all 12 meetings, as someone is not a representative of the British government, but an advocate of a particular relationship with Israel, that was frankly harmful to the cause that he thought he was serving.”
In her resignation letter to May, Patel said she made the Israel trip with “the best of intentions” but acknowledged: “My actions fell below the standards of transparency and openness that I have advocated.”
May wrote back: “Now that 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.”
Priti Patel’s resignation letter. No mention of Israel. pic.twitter.com/HaBV17tjk0
— Raoul Wootliff (@RaoulWootliff) 8 November 2017