The British Parliament is in a crisis, engulfed by yet more sleaze and sex scandals which have already led to the departure of one high profile secretary of state and many other senior politicians facing forensic scrutiny. Presiding over all of this is Theresa May; the Prime Minister is regarded as a leader who is in office but not power. She cannot operate without the fragile pact that she made with the hard-line Ulster unionists of the DUP.
In these unprecedented times, then, the last thing that she needs is for another minister to go rogue and flaunt the fact openly, but that is exactly what has happened. To make the issue even more complicated for the government and opposition, the matter in question involves Israel. As we all know, anything that involves the Zionist state is often conflated with anti-Semitism and turned into a virtual no-go area for rational debate.
At least that is what Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel will be hoping for with the revelation that she held undisclosed meetings in Israel while accompanied by an influential Conservative Party pro-Israel lobbyist, without letting the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) know. In short, she has broken the standard protocol for ministers when overseas. Furthermore, not only did Patel meet the leader of one of Israel’s main political parties, but she also made visits to several organisations where official departmental business was discussed.
Britain has a very clear code of conduct to which ministers must adhere, and Patel has broken not one but a number of the rules and regulations. In the eyes of many observers, this is far more serious than a quick fumble of someone’s knees by the arrogant ex-Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon, who fell on his sword this week due to his indiscretion of years gone by.
According to Tel Aviv gossip, one of the Patel meetings was held at the suggestion of the Australian-born Mark Regev, who is the current Israeli Ambassador in London and a brazen apologist for his country’s brutal offensives against Palestinian civilians in the Gaza Strip. There is speculation that Regev and the rest of the pro-Israel lobby which holds so much influence in the corridors of Westminster will put pressure on May not to reprimand Priti Patel. This would clearly upset British diplomats in Israel who were not informed in advance about her visit even though she is bound by convention to tell the FCO of any official business overseas.
At the moment, Downing Street is back-pedalling and claiming that Patel was on a private holiday, paid for from her own purse. The Prime Minister, it insists, will not be pursuing the matter further. This, surely, is just not good enough.
While no British civil servants were present during the August visit, Patel was joined by Lord Stuart Polak, the Honorary President of Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), an influential lobbying organisation that has access to wealthy party donors. He is also a director (“unpaid”) of the company which “provides secretariat to the All-Party Britain-Israel Parliamentary Group”. Polak is obviously a key member of the pro-Israel lobby in Britain.
This has given further rise among ministers as well as other MPs that Priti Patel is setting out to win favour with wealthy pro-Israel Conservative donors who could fund a potential future leadership campaign. Patel is a long-standing supporter of Israel and a former vice-chairman of CFI. On the centenary of the infamous Balfour Declaration, also this week, she told an audience gathered together by pro-Israel lobby group BICOM and the Jewish News that it was “a pleasure and a privilege to be speaking” at the event “and we will certainly mark the centenary with pride.” She shared Theresa May’s pride in the “role that we [Britain] played in the creation of the State of Israel.”
Patel, though, remains in clear breach of the ministerial code of conduct which states that “ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or could reasonably be perceived to arise, between their public duties and their private interests, financial or otherwise.”
One minister told the BBC: “This is outrageous. She is a Cabinet minister. She just cannot do this. This is about donors and influence.” Another former minister asked, “What does it say to the rest of the Middle East if a senior Cabinet minister in charge of Britain’s huge aid budget disappears for 48 hours from a family holiday in Israel and is under the wing of a pro-Israeli lobbyist?”
By coincidence (if anything that Israel does is ever coincidental), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in London to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration and so Theresa May is unlikely to risk creating waves in her Cabinet.
Despite the sensitivity of the matter, Yair Lapid, the leader of Israel’s centrist Yesh Atid party, a former finance minister in Netanyahu’s coalition government, gleefully tweeted a picture of his meeting with Patel, saying it was “great to meet Priti Patel” whom he described as “a true friend of Israel.”
Conservative Friends of Israel regularly pays for MPs and peers to go on junkets to Israel, but for Patel to visit Israeli firms and charities discussing government business is way beyond her remit if the trip was, as she insists, a private holiday. Any doubt about government business being up for discussion during this “private holiday” was dispelled by a Facebook posting by Jean Judes, executive director of Beit Issie Shapiro, who boasted: “As the director [sic] of the DFID – UK Department for International Development – Ms Patel expressed interest in a long-term relationship with Beit Issie Shapiro, harnessing Israeli innovation to advance assistive technology for the benefit of people with disabilities in underdeveloped countries. We look forward to a strong, fruitful partnership with the DFID to enhance the quality of life of people with disabilities worldwide.” And just to confirm the support of the Israeli government, Judes told journalists that the Israeli Embassy in London had been involved in setting up the visit.
Since Britain currently sends about £68m a year to support the Palestinian territories from DFID’s budget there is a clear conflict of interest here, since Patel did not visit any of the occupied Palestinian territories or Palestinian Authority officials, and she is a long-standing critic of such funding.
Patel is keeping a low profile at the moment but the Prime Minister is not expected to take any action against her if, as looks likely, her DFID minister has Tel Aviv’s protection. Ordinarily such interference by an alien state would attract a raft of complaints, but with all the damaging anti-Semitism smears lobbed at the Labour Party this year, it is unlikely that Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn will raise the issue in Parliament.
This would be a huge error of judgment, since Patel really has more reason to resign over her ministerial conduct than Michael Fallon, but as soon as the word Israel is raised in government or media circles people dive for cover. It seems more than ever before that when accusations of anti-Semitism follow criticism of Israel, open debate dies a swift death.
If Priti Patel’s Israel jaunt is anything to go by, Westminster prefers sleaze and sex scandals over a very real external threat to our democracy. It’s all somehow so very, very British.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.