UK aid minister forced to quit over unauthorized meetings with Israeli officials

In August, Priti Patel met with Netanyahu, 11 others during family trip to Jewish state without notifying Downing Street; May says UK-Israel cooperation ‘must be done formally’

Britain's International Development Secretary Priti Patel leaves 10 Downing Street in London on November 8, 2017, after a meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May (AFP/Adrian Dennis)
Britain's International Development Secretary Priti Patel leaves 10 Downing Street in London on November 8, 2017, after a meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May (AFP/Adrian Dennis)

Britain’s aid minister Priti Patel was forced to resign on Wednesday for holding a series of unauthorized meetings with Israeli officials over the summer, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, apologizing for “what has happened.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May summoned International Development Secretary Patel back from a trip to Africa to explain her talks with Israeli politicians, in which she reportedly raised the possibility of Britain diverting aid to the Israeli army for medical help for Syrian refugees.

“I offer a fulsome apology to you and to the Government for what has happened and offer my resignation,” she wrote in a letter to May.

“As you know from our discussion I accept that in meeting with organizations and politicians during a private holiday in Israel my actions fell below the high standards that are expected,” she wrote. “While my actions were meant with the best of intentions, my actions also fell below the standards of transparency and openness that I have promoted and advocated.”

Britain’s International Development Secretary Priti Patel leaves no 10 Downing Street in London on November 8, 2017,
Britain’s International Development Secretary Priti Patel has come under criticism for holding unauthorised meetings during a family holiday to Israel, including with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. ( AFP PHOTO / Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS)

Patel wrote in her letter that there had been a “number of reports about my actions and I am sorry that these have served as a distraction.”

May accepted Patel’s resignation, replying in a letter that “the UK and Israel are close allies, and it is right that we should work closely together. But that must be done formally.”

Patel had apologized on Monday for holding 12 separate meetings during a family holiday to Israel in August, without notifying the Foreign Office or Downing Street in advance.

After a public reprimand from the prime minister, Patel left the UK on Tuesday for a three-day trip to Uganda, but returned on Wednesday at May’s request.

In Israel, opposition leader Isaac Herzog called Patel’s resignation a “great loss” for both Israel and Britain.

“She is a wonderful political leader who served the people with passion and honor,” Herzog told the Times of Israel on the sidelines of an event held by the British, Israel and Commonwealth Association marking the Balfour Declaration centenary. “I had the great pleasure of meeting her on many occasions and saw her dedication. It is a great loss for Israel and also for the people of the UK.”

British Ambassador to Israel David Quarry, at the same event, declined to comment on the resignation.

Eric Pickles (Communities and Local Government Office)

Sir Eric Pickles, a former minister, ex-chairman of the governing Conservative Party and the current head of Conservative Friends of Israel, suggested the meetings would not have caused such a stir if a country other than Israel had been involved. “I cannot imagine there would be this kind of fuss if she had met various people of influence in Belgium, if that is not a contradiction in terms,” said Pickles.

A spokesperson for Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told The Times of Israel that there was nothing untoward about a September meeting between Patel and Erdan in the UK that also contributed to her resignation.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in his office in Bnei Brak on October 26, 2017.(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“It was organized via the Israeli embassy in the UK who made all the necessary arrangements. The deputy Israeli ambassador to the UK was also in the meeting,” he said.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry confirmed it was aware of that London meeting and that the deputy ambassador attended. It said the arrangements were made directly with Patel and not via the UK Foreign Ministry.

Patel is the second cabinet minister in a week to leave May’s government, after Michael Fallon quit as defense secretary on November 1 following allegations of sexual harassment.

On Monday, Patel revealed details of her meetings in Israel, which included discussions with non-governmental organizations and businesses.

She said they were arranged by Lord Stuart Polak, honorary president of the lobbying group Conservative Friends of Israel.

British Prime Minister Theresa May (L) poses with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside 10 Downing Street in London on November 2, 2017. (AFP/Tolga Akmen)

It emerged late Tuesday that there had been another two meetings in September, with Erdan in London and with senior foreign ministry official Yuval Rotem in New York.

“I don’t understand what more she needs to do to be sacked,” one unnamed minister told The Daily Telegraph newspaper.

During her meetings, Patel discussed the possibility of British aid being used to support medical assistance for Syrian refugees arriving in the Israeli Golan Heights, Downing Street said.

Israeli soldiers escort a wounded Syrian patient into a secret military field hospital in the Golan Heights. (photo credit: screen capture, Channel 2)

However, reports suggest that she did not explain to May that this involved supplying funding to the Israeli army, which has facilitated the treatment of more than 3,100 wounded refugees in Israeli hospitals since 2013.

Britain views the Golan Heights as occupied territory and a minister told MPs on Tuesday that funding the Israeli Defense Forces there was “not appropriate.”

In a further development on Wednesday, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that Patel visited a military field hospital in the Golan Heights as a guest of the government.

A senior Palestinian official on Wednesday condemned the meetings as “scandalous,” urging May to take action.

“I think it is scandalous and that leads me to question how many more cases, not just in Britain but other places, have not been exposed,” Hanan Ashrawi told AFP.

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