It’s a story that seemed to suddenly blow up out of nowhere. And it resulted in Pritti Patel being called back from Nairobi to meet with the Prime Minister – after which she immediately resigned from office.
The reason, we are told, was a breach of protocol – Patel had failed to inform the appropriate government departments of unofficial meetings she had had with various Israeli officials.
But two different narratives emerged immediately.
One version of events has it that Downing Street told Pritti Patel not to make known one of the meetings she’d had with Israel officials – essentially that they knew about it, but didn’t want it made public. But Downing Street denies this.
The other is that Downing Street had no idea Patel had held these unrecorded meetings.
Supposedly, Pritti Patel met with senior Israeli figures – including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – while on a ‘family holiday’ in Israel; as well as in New York and in London. And supposedly, she failed to notify the foreign office.
This created the impression of her having been engaged in ‘secret meetings’. At the very least, this was seen as a serious breach of protocol.
But which was it? A breach of protocol or a series of secret meetings that were meant to be off-the-record?
A senior British minister meeting with senior figures of a foreign government whilst ‘on holiday’ is understandably suspicious. When that foreign government is Israel, it tends to feel even more so – particularly at a time when everyone has been talking about the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
What was Pritti Patel doing? Was it a genuine slip up? Or was she following a private agenda outside of the knowledge of the Prime Minister and the government?
The meetings, we are told, were set up by Stuart Polak. Polak – president of the Conservative Friends of Israel (to which most senior Conservatives belong – including Ian Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers, for example, while Chris Grayling belongs to a Zionist lobby group called the ‘British Israel Communications and Research Centre’) and member of the House of Lords – is an influential lobbyist.
Polak is described as ‘a veteran of Westminster’s corridors of power. He has taken literally hundreds of Tory MPs to Israel over the years, educating them about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and securing their support in parliamentary votes and the public arena… Under his guidance, CFI became the biggest lobbying group in Westminster, making countless Downing Street visits, and developing contacts throughout Israel and the Middle East…’
According to The Independent, Patel ‘averaged one meeting a day’ with various figures in Israel; ‘meetings of which, despite the fact that such a detailed programme must have been planned in advance, she failed to give the Foreign Office, the British Embassy or for that matter her own Prime Minister, any prior notice.’
Strangely, this whole controversy only came out when Benjamin Netanyahu was in London for meetings with the Prime Minister to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. The actual events in question had in fact occured months earlier. The BBC suddenly leaked this story at the same time the Balfour Declaration was being marked – at which point Downing Street denied having had any knowledge of these meetings and Pritti Patel was immediately in trouble.
What’s most odd about Patel’s meeting with Netanyahu is that – supposedly – Theresa May didn’t know about it until she hosted Netanyahu in London last week to celebrate the Balfour Declaration centenary.
Aside from meeting with Netanyahu, Patel also met with Gilad Erdan, the Minister for public security and strategic affairs, and with Yuval Rotem, the director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Jewish Chronicle reported on Tuesday that two different sources had told them that Pritti Patel had told Downing Street about her meeting with Rotem – but that the Prime Minister’s office had told her to keep it secret. Apparently, this was because it might ’embarass’ the Foreign Office.
They also reported that, although Ms Patel’s meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu was not authorised, Downing Street was made aware of it within hours of it happening – (apparently) contradicting Downing Street’s claim that the PM didn’t know until she herself met with Netanyahu last week.
We are told that Patel – as Britain’s International Development Secretary, had been discussing giving British aid money to the Israeli Defense Forces. Specifically, this was said to be towards IDF-run hospitals in the Golan Heights.
According to the Financial Times, this idea had already been rejected by British officials who had considered it inappropriate for the UK to provide aid for use in the disputed Golan Heights, which – although occupied by Israel since 1967 – is still regarded by international law (and by the UK) as being part of Syria.
A logical surface-reading of the story would suggest this is the reason for Downing Street and the Foreign Office to have wanted these meetings to remain secret: because it involved the suggested use of British aid money for Israeli military operations in a territory that is not officially recognised as part of Israel, but as part of Syria.
So, what was the real story?
It seems unlikely – though not impossible – that a minister as experienced as Pritti Patel would use her ‘family holiday’ time to take an unofficial trip into the illegally-occupied (or at the very least, highly disputed) territory of the Golan Heights. By any reckoning, it was inappropriate for her to even be there, let alone to – according to government sources – fail to inform the appropriate parties back home of her activities.
The people she met with weren’t exactly minor figures either – and included Prime Minister Netanyahu. To not have any official notes or records is unusual for a government minister.
While I would assume that informal, off-the-record meetings between representatives of different governments do happen, I would assume these are usually a case of counterparts meeting counterparts (for example, foreign ministers meeting with counterpart foreign ministers, etc) and not the ‘International Development Secretary’ getting to have a personal, off-the-record meeting with another country’s Prime Minister (and failing to inform her own Prime Minister about it).
It wouldn’t surprise me to know that these kinds of trysts happen all the time – but, if so, you have to wonder why Downing Street made a big deal out of this one.
And what is the IDF doing in the Golan Heights that Pritti Patel was interested in? Apparently, she was observing IDF “humanitarian work” in the form of the Israeli military offering medical treatment to Syrian refugees fleeing the Assad regime.
Whatever Patel was shown, it impressed her enough that she apprently advocated some of Britain’s limited international aid money being given to the IDF (which is already very well funded, particularly by the United States). However, as The Independent points out, ‘her department’s budget is apparently so tight that she approved cuts last year in aid to the Palestinians of £17 million, including projects in Gaza.’
I don’t particularly care about dysfunction in the Conservative government. But the detail in all of this that was particularly bothering me was the fact that Patel had been not just in Israel, but specifically in the Golan Heights – and was proposing British aid to the IDF in occupied Syria.
In fact, I do have some sympathy for Israel’s attitude regarding the Golan Heights: in as much as that they claimed the territory after capturing it in the 1967 war – and the 1967 war wasn’t initiated by Israel, but was – from the Israeli perspective – a defensive campaign that they just happened to do very well in.
But, putting that aside, the story about the IDF tending to Syrian refugees there didn’t seem to have the ring of truth to it.
Plus we have been aware for some time of Israeli military hospitals treating and aiding jihadists and fighters in Syria, including Al-Qaeda affiliated fighters. This has been going on for at least four or five years by now.
So I searched around different journalistic platforms for anything that would touch on this possible connection. And I came across Johnothan Cook, writing at Mondoweiss, who writes that ‘Although it is widely reported that the hospital cares for “Syrian nationals” injured in the fighting in Syria, its primary role appears to be to treat foreign fighters from al Qaeda-affiliated groups injured in battles with Syrian government forces and their Lebanese ally, Hizbullah. A significant number of wounded have been transferred to hospitals inside Israel.’
He continues, ‘This barely concealed fact – it was even documented by the United Nations in 2015 – caused outrage among the Syrian Druze population living under Israeli occupation in the Golan, as well as Druze families in Israel. It looked to them like the Islamist fighters were being patched up so that they could carry on butchering Druze relatives a few miles away in southern Syria. But in fact, Israel’s ties to al Qaeda groups and Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria extend beyond medical help. The UN reported that the Israeli army was seen transferring boxes to al-Qaeda groups in Syria. There are credible reports that Israel has also armed and trained al Qaeda fighters, and provided them with maps and intelligence…‘
Is this what Pritti Patel was in the Golan Heights to look at? And is this what she was advocating British funding for?
She might not have been – she may have, for example, had the wool pulled over her eyes by her IDF hosts.
Don’t assume that everyone is knowingly engaged in nefarious activities. There have been plenty of instances where politicians appear to have been misled or used in order to help facillitate shady agendas – for example, we can recall how the late Labour MP Jo Cox (a devoted activist for Palestinian causes) was passionately campaigning for the White Helmets in Syria, presumably having no knowledge of their links to Al-Qaeda or their nature as a front for jihadist operations.
But if Pritti Patel was pledging British financial support to IDF involvement in the Syrian proxy war, then it’s little wonder Downing Street or the Foreign Office would want that meeting off-the-record.
But it still isn’t at all clear whether Downing Street or the Foreign Office in reality knew all about Patel’s presence in the Golan Heights or whether they were kept in the dark about it – even after Patel’s resignation, there are still basically two different versions of the story out there.
That’s a key detail to understand in order to make sense of the whole thing.
Because, if it was the former, then it might be a case of her ‘secret’ meetings in Israel having been unofficially sanctioned, but with the government having told her to keep these off-the-record.
But, if the latter was the case, then it raises the question of whether Patel – under the guidance of Stuart Polak and the CFI – was actually servicing a private agenda between Israeli officials and members of the CFI and the Tory government, but outside of the knowledge of Theresa May or the Foreign Office.
It’s anyone’s guess – this whole story, and the way it has been reported, has been confusing and unclear.
Curiously, at the time of being called back to Downing Street by Mrs May, Patel was with Liam Fox – a Neo-Con former British government minister who himself was previously forced to resign from his position when it was revealed that billionaire Israeli arms dealer, Poju Zabludowicz, was funding his lavish playboy lifestyle and that Fox had also been taking along an unsanctioned accomplice (with no formal position) to various foreign engagements and meetings (like Patel, regarded as having been in breach of protocol).
This business of secret or ‘unofficial’ meetings with Israeli officials seems to crop up more often than we usually notice. For example, last year – during the French elections – the secretary-general of Marine Le Pen’s Front National had met with miltiary, goverment and political officials in Israel while on a ‘private visit’ to Israel. Israel’s Foreign Ministry insisted Nicolas Bay had not met with any Israeli officials: but Bay then tweeted photos of himself with an Israeli government official and army general. The photos quickly disappeared from Bay’s Twitter timeline – no doubt he’d realised his mistake.
In Pritti Patel’s case, it remains unclear whether she was acting unofficially with the government’s blessing or whether she was acting outside of Downing Street’s or the Foreign Office’s knowledge or interests.
Either way, this whole affair does very little to counter the recurring suspicion that Israeli interference in or co-opting of British government affairs is ongoing. Or that the current British government is one of disunity, intrigue and conflicting loyalties and interests.