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The Priti Patel Scandal: The Real Reason a British Minister Lost Her Job After Meeting Netanyahu

Priti Patel fell victim to a tug-of-war between ministers, civil servants and lobbyists over who sets British foreign policy, especially on sensitive issues like the Middle East

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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British International Development Secretary Priti Patel arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street, October 10, 2017.
British International Development Secretary Priti Patel arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street, October 10, 2017.Credit: Alastair Grant / AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The contrasting reactions in Jerusalem and London to the resignation of U.K. International Development Secretary Priti Patel are telling. The backstory is familiar by now: While on a family vacation in Israel, Patel met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior figures, and visited places including an army field hospital in the Golan Heights. But she didn’t notify the Foreign Office. In Britain, the headlines screamed of “secret” meetings and a severe breach of protocol.

In Israel, politicians and pundits shrugged their shoulders. “So what?” one Israeli official asked. “She met with Netanyahu without telling the ambassador? That’s a reason to fire her? It must be an anti-Israel reaction.”

From much of the coverage in Britain, there rises an aroma of high intrigue. A senior British minister was secretly meeting with the leaders of a foreign country, pursuing a personal agenda contrary to British policy. To make things worse, the meetings and visits were set up by Stuart Polak, an influential lobbyist, a member of the House of Lords and president of Conservative Friends of Israel. It all sounds very sinister. But was it?

Boiled down, what Patel is guilty of is a breach of protocol. Her meetings in Israel were secret only in the sense that she didn’t inform the senior officials of her own department and the diplomats at the Foreign Office. If the meetings really had been secret, deputy minister Michael Oren wouldn’t have told Britain’s deputy ambassador to Israel and Middle East Minister Alistair Burt that very same day that Patel had had a successful meeting with Netanyahu (as has been reported in the British media). If they were secret, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan wouldn’t have enthusiastically tweeted photographs of their meetings, which in both cases took place in public venues.

If the professionals at the Foreign Office really were shocked by the breach of protocol, they would have demanded that Patel’s boss, Prime Minister Theresa May, call her to order the moment they found out three months ago. At the very least, they would have involved their own boss, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who apparently had already been made aware of the meetings.

Strangely, however, the entire story only came out three months later, leaked by anonymous sources to the BBC and published last Friday, when entirely by coincidence, Netanyahu was visiting London for meetings with May and to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.

So was it the actual meetings and Patel’s visit to an Israeli military base in the Golan, where Britain and the rest of the international community don’t recognize Israeli sovereignty, that so angered the Foreign Office? Or was it part of a wider tug-of-war between ministers, civil servants and political lobbyists over who sets British foreign policy, especially on sensitive issues such as Israel and the Middle East?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) gestures towards countries on a map on the wall while giving a lecture regarding Israel's foreign policy priorities as Chatham House Director Robin NibletCredit: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP

Clashing with the career diplomats

The key question about Patel and Polak’s motives in acting behind the backs of the professional diplomats was whether it was just part of their general arrogance in assuming they could defy normal procedures. Or did they actually believe that in these meetings they could further some loosely-defined plans to get the British government to devote some of its considerable foreign-aid budget to supporting Israel’s humanitarian operation for wounded Syrians in the Golan, and for joint aid projects in Africa?

Either way, they have both acted with staggering incompetence. It should have been clear to a cabinet minister and a skillful political operator like Polak that the Foreign Office would soon be aware of these meetings and that any major changes to Britain’s aid policy would have to be worked out in detail with the civil service.

Both players in this drama already nurture a hostility to the professionals of British officialdom. Patel is a leading Brexiteer, a senior member of the euroskeptic wing of the Conservative Party that dismisses the advice of “experts” in its quest to detach Britain from the European Union.

Polak, in his “pro-Israel” lobbying, has also clashed in the past with diplomats. In March 2014, when then-Prime Minister David Cameron visited Israel, Polak and Conservative Party Treasurer Andrew Feldman prevailed on Cameron to cut paragraphs criticizing Israel’s settlement policy from the prime minister’s Knesset speech. The senior diplomat who had been in charge of drafting that address was the then-director of the Foreign Office’s Near East and North Africa Department, and now ambassador to Israel, Quarrey.

It’s not hard to see Polak thinking that he could yet again get one over Quarrey. There obviously was a limit to how far Patel and Polak could defy the civil servants before it blew up in their faces.

Under normal circumstances, Patel may have escaped this scandal with a reprimand and her job intact. But these aren’t normal times in London. May’s barely-functioning government is under constant, and justified, criticism for its mishandling of the Brexit negotiations. If she had let Patel remain, it would have been yet another sign of May’s lack of discipline over her unruly ministers.

Patel isn’t as powerful as other rebels in the cabinet, such as the scandalous Johnson (who may have had a hidden role in the leaks against Patel to divert attention from a much worse offense he committed in endangering a British citizen imprisoned in Iran, erroneously saying that she had been training journalists there). In any case, it was relatively easy to throw her to the wolves.

A key partner in Patel and Polak’s incompetence and opportunism in this case was no less than Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister. Since Netanyahu meets with so many senior politicians from foreign countries every day, he may not have taken much interest in why the British ambassador wasn’t present at his meeting with Patel, as is standard in any such get-together.

But even if this was just an oversight on his part, it reflects the extent to which Netanyahu has for years been downgrading Israel’s professional foreign service, preferring to use his own personal emissaries for diplomatic missions. (Chief among them his attorney Isaac Molho, who for four days this week has been questioned by the police over allegations of a conflict of interest in the German submarines kickback case.) The possible oversight reflects the extent to which Netanayahu doesn’t see the need to appoint a full-time foreign minister. Neither Netanyahu nor anyone in his office thought it important to flag the fact that a meeting with a senior minister without the ambassador wouldn’t end well.

Demoralized Israeli foreign service

This isn’t the first time this year that the shambles at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem has caused a political scandal in London. In January, Al Jazeera broadcast footage of a “senior Israeli diplomat” boasting about how he would “take down” a British minister who had been critical of Israel. The truth is, Shai Masot wasn’t even a junior diplomat. He was an amateur without any diplomatic training or experience who had been hired locally by the Israeli Embassy in London to work with student groups – for that he got the grand title ”senior political adviser.”

This was a period when due to the lack of interest in Netanyahu’s office, there was no permanent ambassador in London and the embassy was understaffed. Had professional norms been adhered to, it’s hard to imagine such an incompetent loudmouth being hired and sent out to be caught by an Al Jazeera camera. It all feeds in to a narrative of devious Israelis burrowing away beneath the British political establishment, and it’s hard to convince journalists that this is simply Israeli incompetence. But when Israel’s foreign service is so demoralized and downgraded, amateurs like Masot and lobbyists like Polak fill the vacuum left by professionals.

As Patel leaves the cabinet for the backbenches and Polak contemplates his fall from uber-macher to untouchable lobbyist who no Conservative minister will want to be seen with in public, the question is what damage has this done to Israel’s ties with Britain. Does it go beyond the loss of a very pro-Israel minister from the cabinet and the drastic weakening of an influential lobby group?

The sorry ending of Patel’s summer holiday is an illustration of the peculiar nature of the relationship between London and Jerusalem. In many aspects, the ties have never been healthier. The cabinet is full of pro-Israel ministers, there is intimate intelligence-sharing between the security and spy services of both countries, Britain in recent years has purchased hundreds of millions pounds worth of Israeli weapons systems, and the coordination between the countries’ militaries is reaching unprecedented heights.

But at the same time, the Foreign Office remains averse, for the traditional reasons of “not angering the Arabs,” to publicly acknowledging just how close the relationship is. Which is why the official level of British government participation in last week’s Balfour centenary remained low-profile and the senior diplomats continue to prevent an official visit by a member of the royal family to Israel.

Just as in an episode of the classic BBC sitcom “Yes Minister,” in which the professionals in the British civil service run rings around their ostensible political masters, the mandarins of Whitehall have taught the politicians another lesson on the perils of going behind their backs. It was a simple maneuver for the veterans of officialdom. Patel and Polak were easy targets, caught out by their incompetence, arrogance and opportunism.

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