Israeli meetings crisis engulfs Priti Patel

More reports emerge about Minister’s dealings with senior members of Israeli establishment

Updated - November 08, 2017 10:10 pm IST

Published - November 08, 2017 09:43 pm IST - London

U.K.’s Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel.

U.K.’s Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel.

The crisis engulfing the British government showed no signs of abating as pressure built on the country’s International Development Minister and most senior Indian-origin politician, Priti Patel, amid further revelations around her dealings with senior members of the Israeli establishment this year.

Ms. Patel was forced to cut short a trip to Africa on Wednesday and return to the U.K. amid accusations and counter-accusations over who exactly knew what about the meetings held in Britain, Israel and the U.S. in August and September, as well as plans to provide development aid funding to the Israeli army.

On Monday, Ms. Patel had publicly apologised for failing to disclose 12 meetings with senior Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a “family holiday” to Israel in August. After initially suggesting that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had been in the loop since the outset, she admitted they had been made aware of the meetings while the trip was under way. While Downing Street initially stood by her, subsequent revelations have made her position increasingly tenuous.

On Wednesday, TheGuardian reported that sources within her Department confirmed further meetings with Israeli officials in September that were also not carried out according to ministerial procedures. She also met a Foreign Ministry official in New York later that month. Reports in the Jewish Chronicle , however, suggested that Ms. Patel had disclosed these to Downing Street but was advised not to reveal details of them as they could embarrass the Foreign Office: something Downing Street has denied.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz also reported on Wednesday that Ms. Patel had travelled to the Golan Heights during her visit. This would go against the long-standing British policy that has treated the region as illegally occupied Syrian land, and not Israeli territory

It also emerged that Ms. Patel had since commenced discussions within her department over sending aid money to the Israeli army for work in the Golan Heights.

While Downing Street insisted on Tuesday that it was not aware of the plans until the media reports, the Jewish Chronicle story on Wednesday suggested they had been looped in. The stand-off has led to much speculation over the extent of Downing Street’s knowledge and involvement in Ms. Patel’s meetings. “Was No. 10 using Patel as a means of evading Boris [Johnson] and the FCO?.” tweeted Jon Trickett, Labour’s spokesperson.

Widespread criticism

The decision to allow Ms. Patel to stay after the initial details of the undisclosed meetings emerged faced widespread criticism both from within the Conservative Party and from the Opposition. Labour has called for her resignation or an investigation into whether the ministerial code had been breached. The controversy comes just a week after Defence Secretary Michael Fallon stepped down over sexual harassment allegations. Also under pressure is Mr. Johnson over incorrect remarks he made to a parliamentary committee that could lengthen the sentence of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian national who has been jailed in Iran.

Ms. Patel, the MP for the Essex constituency of Witham, entered Parliament in 2010. Born in London, she was appointed diaspora champion for the British Indian community by former Prime Minister David Cameron as part of his effort to strengthen ties between the two countries, and to win over more of the British Gujarati and wider Indian community. She has been a strong cheerleader of the Narendra Modi government, publicly praising a number of its policies including demonetisation.

She has continued to play a prominent role in the bilateral relationship. Last year, the British government described her as their “first foot” to India as she toured Ahmedabad, Kolkata and New Delhi.

Last year, Ms. Patel courted controversy as a vocal Leave campaigner, telling sections of the Indian community that leaving the European Union presented an opportunity for Britain to ease immigration rules for non-E.U. citizens. “By voting to leave, we can take back control of our immigration policies, save our curry houses and join the rest of the world,” she told the  Evening Standard  newspaper in May 2016.

Last August, she told  The Hindu  that the U.K.-India bilateral relationship would benefit from Brexit, and that the EU had “held back” the economic development of India as they would not do a trade deal.

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