The Priti Patel affair is an insight into the power of the Israel lobby to influence the British political system.
But it is only a symptom of the rot. The exaggerated power of corporate and states lobbyists to influence government policy is a concern far bigger than one crooked minister.
Patel, who was the minister in charge of international aid, was forced to resign after it came to light that she had held 12 meetings with Israeli political and business leaders during what she later claimed was a “family holiday”.
Great to meet with Priti Patel, UK Secretary of State for International Development, today. A true friend of Israel. pic.twitter.com/8q9qSeX7YZ
— יאיר לפיד (@yairlapid) August 24, 2017
The ministers’ code of conduct dictates that official meetings with foreign leaders should be attended by UK officials so they can be properly documented. Patel was forced to resign on Wednesday when it came to light she had not told even her own department about the meetings.
While British civil servants were not present, leading Israel lobbyist Lord Stuart Polak was. A long-standing leader of Conservative Friends of Israel, Polak also has outstanding connections with rich Tory donors.
Anonymous ministers speaking to the BBC accused Patel of seeking to curry favour with rich, pro-Israel Tory donors who could potentially fund a future campaign for leadership of the party.
As Labour Party backbencher Naz Shah put it in Commons questions to Patel’s deputy, “it seems that British foreign policy on Israel and Palestine is being run by a Conservative-linked lobby group rather than by an independent civil service and an elected government.”
As Patel was drafting her resignation letter on Wednesday, Polak was dodging cameras in Jerusalem. Channel 4 News sent a stringer to ask him why he had set up the meetings. He didn’t seem too keen to answer, and told staff to remove the press.
There are still many questions that the British political establishment has to answer about the affair. What was Patel promised by her Israel lobby backers? What did Theresa May know exactly about Patel’s meetings and when? What is the true extent of the Israel lobby’s penetration of Parliament?
Naz Shah’s statement about Conservative Friends of Israel running British foreign policy on Palestine was apt. But she ignored the wider bipartisan point. During past Labour governments, groups like Labour Friends of Israel have had just as much influence.
And, despite veteran Palestine solidarity activist Jeremy Corbyn now leading the Labour Party, Labour Friends of Israel still holds a lot of sway in the party. Would Britain’s long standing record of bias towards Israeli occupation, war crimes and apartheid change much, or at all, were Corbyn to enter Number 10?
We can hope so, but the signs are not good.
While Corbyn has weathered the storm generated by the manufactured “Labour anti-Semitism” crisis of last year well, for the most part it seems it was a battle he did not want to fight. He largely did not publicly call out these accusations for what they were – false and malicious allegations intended to unseat him and to push Labour’s policies in a more pro-Israel direction.
Far more worrying is the attitude of Corbyn ally Emily Thornberry, who would be our foreign minister were Labour to win an election tomorrow.
She attended anniversary events to celebrate 100 years since British Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour wrote a letter to the Zionist Federation promising to invade Palestine and hand it over to Zionism’s emerging settler-colonial movement.
She even went so far as to claim that Israel – an apartheid state which throws Palestinians in jail using military “courts” which have a 99.7 per cent conviction rate – is a “beacon of freedom”.
And this week she took part in a Labour Friends of Israel propaganda trip to meet MPs with the Israeli Labor Party. The trip was led by Joan Ryan, the anti-Corbyn Labour MP who was caught on camera in an undercover Al Jazeera investigation in January inventing a claim of anti-Semitism against a Labour Party member, and later reporting her to the party for investigation.
Unlike Patel’s trip, Thornberry is at the same time visiting with groups like Medical Aid for Palestinians and Breaking the Silence, on a tour led by Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East. This is to be welcomed, but does not excuse her boosterism of Israel, and to an extent even fits in with Labour Friends of Israel propaganda claims to be “Pro-Israel, Pro-Palestine, Pro-Peace”.
After the Al Jazeera revelations, Thornberry called for an investigation into the influence of the Israeli embassy on British politics, saying it was a “national security issue”. But crucially, her call focused on the revelations about Israel lobby tactics to “take down” Tory ministers, and before the film’s – more extensive – revelations about penetration of the Labour Party had been broadcast.
Now we know why: she was perfectly willing to allow herself to fall under the sway of the Israel lobby herself – even so odious a character as Joan Ryan, who has been viciously anti-Corbyn, and was willing to tell untruths about “anti-Semitism” in defence of Israel.
Grassroots Labour party activists who are hoping for a genuinely ethical foreign policy will need to hold Thornberry to account for her increasingly pro-Israel bent if they are not to be disappointed.