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Patel-Israel scandal grows as May tries to weather the storm

Priti Patel, Britain's International Development Secretary [PROBritish High Commission/Flickr]

Quite how long Priti Patel can hold on to her job as a Secretary of State remains to be seen after she has been exposed as a liar over the finer details of her so-called family holiday to Israel over the summer. Not only did she trample over strict guidelines and protocols demanded by the seniority of her office, but she has also attempted to mislead journalists and the wider public over the nature of her trip, which has left her position untenable in the view of many people.

Speculation is rife that a battle of wills is ongoing between Westminster and Tel Aviv over her ministerial future. Even MPs in her own party believe that the International Development Secretary's days are numbered following new revelations about her trip. It has now emerged, for example, that Patel:

  • Wanted to send development aid money to the Israeli army;
  • Conducted 12 secret meetings with high level Israeli officials;
  • Discussed British government business with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu without Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) officials being present; and
  • Ignored strict government ministerial guidelines demanded of her office.

Patel has already been forced to apologise for holding the 12 previously-undisclosed meetings in Israel in August while on a self-funded "family holiday". Now she has also been forced into a humiliating U-turn after claiming that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and the FCO knew about her meetings and trip in advance. Those claims, made to the Guardian newspaper, have been exposed as lies.

However it is her discussion about giving aid to the Israeli military which is bound to cause the greatest furore with all political parties. Israel has the fourth largest army in the world and stands accused of committing war crimes in its three major military offensives against Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip since 2008.

Read: Sitting Priti as minister is protected by Tel Aviv

Moreover, Britain does not recognise Israel's permanent occupation of the Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War. Patel's desire to give Israel's army some aid either there or in the occupied Palestinian territories would contravene British government policy.

According to a spokesman for Theresa May's office in Downing Street, Patel did discuss potential ways to provide medical support for Syrian refugees who are wounded and who cross into the Golan for treatment. "The Israeli army runs field hospitals there to care for Syrians wounded in the civil war. But there is no change in policy in the area. The UK does not provide any financial support to the Israeli army."

Embarrassingly, Prime Minister Theresa May only learned of Patel's overseas meetings last Friday. For some reason, neither Patel nor May's Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu, who was given the red carpet treatment by Downing Street a day earlier, mentioned their August meeting to her. Netanyahu was in London as a guest of the British Prime Minister to mark the centenary of the infamous Balfour Declaration.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) meets with British Prime Minister Theresa May (R) during his official visit in London, UK on 2 November 2017 [United Kingdom Prime Ministry/Anadolu Agency]

As pressure mounted over her future, Patel issued a statement through the Department for International Development admitting her lies to the media about how much Boris Johnson knew of her visit: "This quote may have given the impression that the secretary of state had informed the foreign secretary about the visit in advance. The secretary of state would like to take this opportunity to clarify that this was not the case. The foreign secretary did become aware of the visit, but not in advance of it."

Patel also said that while "on a family holiday paid for by myself" she "had the opportunity to meet a number of people and organisations. I am publishing a list of who I met.‎ The Foreign and Commonwealth Office was aware of my visit while it was under way‎.

"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."

Read: The UK is quietly changing its policy on Israel and Palestine

The Labour Party has called for an urgent investigation. It is now increasingly clear that Patel broke the ministerial code of conduct but, as May clings on to her position as Prime Minister, there is some speculation that she cannot afford the departure of another government minister — following the resignation of Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon — from her weak government.

May has been hamstrung from day one after her disastrous snap election saw the Conservative Party lose its parliamentary majority. Her government is now mired in sleaze and scandal which has left the Prime Minister caught between a rock and a hard place. Having lost Fallon, more are expected to fall before the end of the week as the naming and shaming of so-called sex pests continues in Westminster.

Observers are speculating if she can, like Priti Patel, brazen out the situation over the next few days and how much support, if any, is being given to Patel from Tel Aviv. The International Development Secretary was accompanied to almost all of her meetings during her "family holiday" by the honorary president of the Conservative Friends of Israel lobbying group, Lord Stuart Polak.

While Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is clearly annoyed that he was kept in the dark about Patel's secret meetings in Israel, he is preoccupied with other more pressing matters after issuing a misleading statement that could result in a charity worker facing a longer jail sentence in Iran. Johnson told a select committee last week that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian mother being held in a notorious Tehran jail, was in Iran training journalists. This is something that her employer has denied vigorously.

However, having been jailed on charges of espionage 18 months ago, Zaghari-Ratcliffe has now been told that she faces fresh charges of attempting to overthrow the Islamic Republic. According to her husband Richard Ratcliffe, she was taken to an unscheduled court hearing where Johnson's remarks were cited as proof of her guilt.

To add to her woes, Theresa May's First Secretary of State Damien Green MP is being investigated after pornographic material was found on one of his House of Commons computers. In his defence, Green insists that, "This story is completely untrue and comes from a tainted and untrustworthy source."

UK: Now is not the 'right time' to recognise Palestine

The big dilemma now facing May is if she can afford to keep Priti Patel in her Cabinet. Should she decide to sack her, she would not only weaken her already fragile government but would almost certainly also incur the wrath of Tel Aviv and the pro-Israel lobby.

Watching all of this with more than the usual interest is Professor Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian Ambassador in London. He said that he is greatly concerned by the "clear breach" of the British government's ministerial code.

"If the present Conservative Government is committed to a two-state solution and the Secretary of State for International Development, as part of the Government, is truly committed to this, why did she not visit Palestinian officials also?" he told the Evening Standard on Tuesday. "Imagine, though, the uproar if she had done this without the Prime Minister's knowledge."

Imagine indeed…

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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