Priti Patel clinging after details of Israel meetings emerge
Priti Patel clinging after details of Israel meetings emerge, Priti Patel appeared to be on the verge of leaving the cabinet after her government department confirmed that she held two more meetings with Israeli officials without following protocol and notifying fellow ministers or officials.
The international development secretary was already facing demands she should quit the post after failing to come clean with Theresa May over 12 other meetings she has held with senior Israeli figures, including prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sources from the Department for International Development (DfID) confirmed on Tuesday night that Patel held further meetings in September with Israeli government officials without adhering to proper procedures.
On 7 September, she met Gilad Erdan, the minister for public security, and was photographed with him on the House of Commons terrace.
On 18 September, while in New York, Patel met Yuval Rotem, an official from the Israeli foreign ministry.
Neither meeting was set up or reported in a way which accorded with proper procedures, sources said.
The disclosures add to the pressure upon Patel, who was forced to apologise for holding the 12 undisclosed meetings without government officials present whileon a family holiday in August.
As the accusations against her mounted, Patel had already faced censure from Downing Street on Tuesday night, after it emerged she had failed to inform the prime minister of departmental discussions over plans to send aid money to the Israeli army to support humanitarian operations in the Golan Heights.
She was also rebuked by No 10 after giving the false impression in an interview with the Guardian that foreign secretary Boris Johnson and the Foreign Office knew about the meetings.
At 13 out of a total of 14 meetings with Israeli officials over August and September, she was accompanied by Lord Polak, a lobbyist and a leading member of Conservative Friends of Israel.
No 10 on Tuesday said Patel had not informed the prime minister about the “aid to Israel” discussions at a crunch meeting on Monday which was supposed to draw a line under the row.
Instead, May learned about the proposals from reports in the media, a Downing Street source said.
Conservative MPs failed to rally behind Patel on Tuesday when her conduct was debated in parliament, which will be noted by her critics within the cabinet and the party.
Patel was not present in the chamber for the meeting, because of a “longstanding commitment” to visit Uganda and Ethiopia with Liam Fox, Downing Street said.
The UK does not recognise Israel’s permanent presence in the Golan Heights, which was seized from Syria in the 1967 war, and so providing aid to the Israeli army in this or other occupied territories would be likely to contravene UK policy.
Patel came under pressure following reports by the BBC on Friday that she had used a holiday in Israel to meet a series of ministers without informing any UK government officials.
On the same day, she told the Guardian that Johnson, the foreign secretary, and Foreign Office officials knew of the meetings.
Patel was hauled into Downing Street for a meeting on Monday, after which No 10 issued a statement saying that a possible breach of the ministerial code had been discussed.
On Tuesday morning, it emerged that a conversation had taken place between Patel and Israeli officials about funnelling money via the Israeli army.
The prime minister’s spokesman said: “The secretary of state did discuss potential ways to provide medical support for Syrian refugees who are wounded and who cross into the Golan for aid.
“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.”
May learned of Patel’s meetings with Israeli politicians on Friday – a day after the PM held a meeting with Netanyahu in Downing Street to mark the centenary of the Balfour declaration.
Patel has clarified her previous remarks to the Guardian in which she had appeared to suggest that Johnson knew of her schedule beforehand.
A statement issued by Patel and the DfID said: “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: “This summer I travelled to Israel, on a family holiday paid for by myself. While away I 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 apologies for it.”
Patel did not tell British diplomats she was holding the meetings, which is the convention.
The Labour party called for an immediate investigation into whether Patel broke the ministerial code of conduct.
In Patel’s absence from parliament, only four of her own party’s backbenchers spoke in the debate and expressed concerns and reservations about recent events involving Patel.
Crispin Blunt, a former chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee, said it was important for cabinet ministers to understand both sides of the Israel–Palestinian conflict.
Implying that Patel did not fully understand the Palestinian perspective, he told Alistair Burt, an experienced minister for the Middle East: “He [Burt] is probably the most equipped of her ministers to take her very gently in hand, and I hope he does.”
Sir Hugo Swire, the former Foreign Office minister, said the public wanted “transparency and accountability” from ministers. Fellow Tory Bob Blackman said it was important to clarify the responsibility of ministers when they went abroad.
The Israeli military’s main humanitarian operation in the Golan Heights is Operation Good Neighbour, an effort to aid Syrian civilians.
That has seen wounded Syrians being brought across the border – often in the middle of the night – to be treated in Israeli hospitals in the country’s north. Israel is also said to supply a small medical clinic at an undisclosed location just inside Syria.
The existence of the Israeli military’s aid efforts was disclosed shortly before Patel’s visit and has been held up by the Israeli government since as an example of its humanitarianism, even towards the citizens of a country with which it does not have friendly relations.
On the other side of the equation – and an issue that would have rung alarm bells if diplomats had been present – is the fact that Israel is also player in the Syrian war.
The country has launched more than 100 airstrikes during the war, usually against Hezbollah weapons stores inside Syria, and carried out targeted killings.