Minister’s resignation over secret Israeli meetings raises questions about UK’s Palestinian policy
London - British International Development Secretary Priti Patel was forced to resign after she had more than a dozen unauthorised meetings with Israeli officials, raising questions about the UK government’s policy regarding the Palestinians.
Patel faced accusations of breaching the ministerial code for failing to clear the meetings through the Foreign Office and Downing Street. Twelve of the meetings, including one with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, took place while Patel was on a 12-day family holiday to Israel in August.
The situation escalated after it became known that Patel tried to conceal other meetings with Israeli officials. She was summoned to London from Kenya on November 8 and forced to tender her resignation.
“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,” Patel acknowledged in her resignation letter.
“As you know the UK and Israel are close allies and it is right that we should work closely together but that must be done formally and through official channels,” British Prime Minister Theresa May replied in her official response.
The move meant May had to conduct a second cabinet reshuffle in a week following the resignation of Defence Secretary Michael Fallon over allegations of sexual misconduct. Patel was replaced as secretary of state for international development by Penny Mordaunt, a former work and pensions minister who, like Patel, is known as a keen Brexiteer.
Patel faced a storm of criticism at home and abroad for visiting a military hospital in the occupied Golan Heights and for discussing channelling British development aid directly to the Israeli military to assist in humanitarian efforts there.
The British government does not officially recognise Israel’s presence in the Golan Heights.
“If a cabinet minister says she wants to funnel money to the IDF [Israeli Defence Forces] and to funnel money to the occupied Golan Heights… this is in total contradiction of the main policies of this government that is pushing for a two-state solution,” Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian ambassador to the United Kingdom, told ITV news.
The British government sought to play down allegations that Patel’s discussions with Israeli officials augured an official change in policy. “There is no change in policy… The UK does not provide any financial support to the Israeli army,” a Downing Street spokesman said.
Questions were raised about the role played by the influential Israeli lobby in British politics. Patel’s meetings with Israeli officials were set up and attended by Lord Stuart Polak, a well-known Conservative lobbyist and honorary president of the Conservative Friends of Israel group.
“This is about donors and influence,” acknowledged one minister, who spoke to the BBC on the condition of anonymity.
Patel also met with Gilad Erdan, Israel’s minister of public security, strategic affairs and minister of information, who is in charge of dealing with the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement meant to pressure Israel.
“Israel’s interest in Patel has to do with cutting off British aid to the Palestinians through her department and fighting the BDS campaign, both of which Patel is in a position to bring about,” said Ghada Karmi, a research fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, in comments carried by RT.
“Scrutiny also needs to be given to the fact that two of the secret meetings were with Gilad Erdan. He has no developmental brief. His ministerial brief is to suppress activism for Palestinian human rights in Israel and abroad. The purpose of Patel’s meetings with him and the full agenda need to be disclosed,” said Palestine Solidarity Campaign Director Ben Jamal in a statement.
Since the Patel incident there have been calls for the United Kingdom, which has pledged 0.7% of gross national income on international aid, to be more transparent in its international development policy.
“The new secretary of state faces an immediate challenge of restoring integrity to British international development policy after the actions of Priti Patel,” said Shadow International Development Secretary Kate Osamor.
“Unlike Priti Patel, who too often used the department to prop up her personal networks and leadership ambitions, Mordaunt must quickly commit to the central cause of the department: To help the world’s poorest,” she added.