It is easy enough to understand why an ambitious politician like Priti Patel would have wanted to court Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), described this week by The Jewish Chronicle’s reporter Marcus Dysch as “the biggest lobbying group in Westminster”.
But what about the Israeli government and its allies? Why, in the words of Israeli opposition politician Isaac Herzog, was Patel’s fall from grace a “great loss for Israel”?
True, she looked like future leadership material. But in fact, a more interesting answer lies in the story of how the Department for International Development (DFID) has become a key battle ground for Israel and its Westminster lobbyists, an arena for foreign policy by proxy.
First, to set the scene. The current Israeli government is dominated by rejectionists of Palestinian statehood and proponents of the annexation of West Bank land. Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu is prepared for the Palestinians to have a “state-minus”, but nothing more.
For a long time, negotiations were the perfect cover for Israeli governments to continue with the colonisation of Palestine. Demands for accountability for Israel’s violations of international law and human rights were dismissed by the likes of the European Union to protect the ‘peace process’.
But now, as a hard-right government expands illegal settlements across East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the stalled peace process is going nowhere fast – and even Israel’s allies are getting twitchy.
In this climate, Israel’s priorities are to divert attention from the apartheid status quo on the ground, and to ensure that a post-peace process vacuum is not filled with serious calls for accountability – and its friends in Westminster (and other Western capitals) are only too glad to help.
That’s where two approaches come into play: first, accusations levelled against the Palestinian Authority (PA) of ‘incitement’ and incentivising ‘terrorism’ by payments to prisoners in Israeli jails; and second, promoting ‘grassroots coexistence’ groups as a constructive step towards peace (as opposed to meaningful steps aimed at ending occupation and structural discrimination).
Each of these strategies has a distinct role to play. Incessantly talking up the issue of PA ‘incitement’, or ‘hateful’ school textbooks, helps ‘balance out’ the obstacles cited by the UK government to making progress in peace talks – ‘incitement’ and ‘violence’ versus settlements and home demolitions – and maintain the false symmetry of demands placed on the occupier and occupied.
Meanwhile, the renewed push by Israel lobby groups on supporting ‘coexistence’ projects is intended to make sure that the desire to ‘do something’ about the status quo, in light of “stalled” direct negotiations, doesn’t translate into a focus on holding Israel accountable for its whole-hearted embrace of permanent occupation, but rather is channelled into “people-to-people projects”.
In June 2016, a debate on international aid in Parliament was – in the words of Conservative MP Alan Duncan – “hijacked” by MPs who used it “to demonise Palestine and Palestinians”. Both CFI and Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) supporters repeatedly challenged DFID’s funding of the PA, in what Labour MP Andy Slaughter criticised as a “concerted campaign”.
Ahead of the debate, CFI Honorary President Lord Polak told the Telegraph that “we have been campaigning for many years to ask DFID to ensure that UK taxpayers’ hard-earned money was reaching the right places and not the wrong pockets”. A month later, Priti Patel was appointed International Development Secretary – and pro-Israel lobby groups had their opportunity.
Patel, described this week in The Jewish Chronicle as “maybe the most pro-Israel member of the Cabinet”, was already a CFI veteran; a few months before her appointment, as then-Employment Minister, Patel told a CFI reception she had been “a friend of Israel” long before becoming an MP.
In addition, Patel brought to her role a somewhat ‘unorthodox’ approach to aid: as was reported at the time, she had previously called for DFID “to be scrapped and replaced”. No wonder then, that CFI “welcomed” Patel’s appointment – and it wasn’t long before Patel was making her mark.
In August 2016, Israeli authorities charged a Gaza-based employee of development NGO World Vision with funnelling tens of millions of dollars to Hamas. Mohammad Halabi was tortured and interrogated for three weeks without legal representation, and charged seven weeks after his arrest. A subsequent Australian government probe found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Israel’s friends, encouraged by Netanyahu’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, jumped on the indictment as an excuse to score propaganda points: NGOs are being exploited by terrorists, Hamas steals from charities, and so on. In the UK, Eric Pickles, then chair of CFI, linked the story to DFID, claiming that the (unproven) “tragic story is symptomatic of the wider abuse of aid money”.
Pickles urged the new Secretary of State “to ensure that DFID exercises far stricter oversight of aid given to Palestinian organisations, to ensure it reaches projects that work for peace rather than hate”, adding: “it is encouraging that Priti is showing an eagerness to tackle these issues”.
Later that month, Patel duly responded via a letter to officials from the Jewish Leadership Council and Board of Deputies of British Jews, saying she was “deeply concerned by these accusations” (the abuses experienced by Halabi in detention were not mentioned).
Though DFID was not funding any World Vision operations in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), Patel continued, the department would “not consider any future funding” to World Vision work in the oPt until the charity completed an audit “and we have had the opportunity to full consider our position”. She added: “Let me reassure you that I am taking this matter extremely seriously”
Patel’s response was cheered by CFI’s Lord Polak: “This is welcome news from the Secretary of State”, he said. “We have been campaigning for many years for transparency and it is clear that DFID are taking this matter seriously”.
Asa Winstaley: Priti Patel scandal is the tip of the Israel lobby iceberg
In autumn 2016, Israel’s friends in Westminster were keen to keep up the focus on so-called ‘incitement’ by the PA. Ian Austin MP, an LFI veteran, invited Patel to meet him and “a small group of colleagues”, in order “to discuss your department’s work in relation to the Palestinian Authority”.
Patel’s swift response revealed that the International Development Secretary was “conducting a full examination of our work in the [oPt]”, including “the future of our support to the PA”. She added: “I would be pleased to meet with you and other colleagues to discuss these issues”.
Then, in October, came the dramatic news that Patel’s department had “suspended” aid to the PA over payments to prisoners, a development hailed by the CFI’s Eric Pickles and Lord Polak as “an important step towards peace”; Patel, they remarked approvingly, had “acted quickly to challenge a long-standing abuse of well-intentioned international aid money”.
Except, it wasn’t quite true. There was no suspension of aid, rather a review, or “examination”, whose results became clear in December, when the government announce that aid to the PA would hence forth be restricted to supporting “the salaries of health and education public servants on a vetted list”. For CFI, Lord Polak, and others, Patel had nevertheless delivered a win.
Indeed, it is doubtful whether Israel’s lobbyists genuinely seek a termination of DFID funding to the PA, as some imply. The continued funding (even in its ring-fenced form) keeps the issue of ‘incitement’ alive at Westminster – and Patel was clearly only too happy to keep it on the agenda, as her February 2017 request to LFI’s Ryan and Austin for evidence of PA ‘incitement’ demonstrated.
Patel delivered another success for Westminster’s pro-Israel lobby groups. In December 2016, LFI chair Joan Ryan wrote to Patel to request DFID’s support for a ‘co-existence’ fund that would “help to build powerful constituencies for peace in Israel and Palestine, forcing leaders in both countries to return to meaningful negotiations”.
After gaining the endorsement of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, in July 2017, Patel’s department agreed to “provide up to £3 million over three years to fund a co-existence or ‘people-to-people’ programme”.
CFI was, of course, “delighted” that Patel had “secured this unprecedented funding”, which, the statement continued, “together with the redirection of Palestinian Authority aid to health and education will ensure taxpayers value for money while directly supporting conflict resolution”.
Israel and its lobbyists clearly had high hopes for Patel. In June, Lord Polak told the House of Lords he was “certain that Priti will continue to ensure that our support goes to the right place”. Pickles hailed “an era where Priti is going to deliver international aid…to people in need that we are going to be proud of”. The change in aid to the PA saw Patel ‘commended’ by Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev.
At the CFI reception in January 2017, Patel told attendees that her department has a “very important role it plays when it comes to Israel”. But the disgraced former minister and the likes of Lord Polak seem to have got a bit ahead of themselves. The confusion in October 2016 over payments to the PA, for example, saw Patel order a freeze even as civil servants were “trying to continue a review”.
The efforts to use DFID as a vehicle for foreign policy, and specifically, to amplify and advance the propaganda talking points of an Israeli government completely disinterested in compromise, came unstuck. “More closely aligned with CFI and Lord Polak than her own department’s civil servants”, as The Jewish Chronicle put it, “Ms Patel effectively went rogue”.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.