Minister’s resignation over secret Israeli meetings raises questions about UK’s Palestinian policy

Sunday 12/11/2017
Belated exit. Britain’s then International Development Secretary Priti Patel leaves 10 Downing Street in London, on November 8. (AP)

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.