Britain's International Development Secretary Priti Patel is at the center of a political scandal that has emerged in recent days with information about a series of meetings she had with senior Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, without notifying the British embassy in advance. The criticism is set to increase Wednesday as Haaretz found that Patel visited an Israeli military field hospital set up in the Golan Heights to treat Syrian refugees and victims of the civil war.
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The British cabinet member took the meetings during a private family vacation in Israel in August, and she has come under intense criticism from the British government, the media and opposition for her breach of protocol.
Like the rest of the international community, the British government does not recognize Israel's control of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the Six-Day War in 1967.
The diplomatic protocol is that British ministers and senior officials do not travel in the Golan, as well as the West Bank and East Jerusalem, under the auspices of the Israeli government. Patel's visit to the Israel Defense Forces field hospital in the Golan Heights as a guest of the Israeli government during her visit is a clear breach of protocol. Upon her return to London, Patel suggested that Britain help fund the field hospital's operations.
This is not the first time that the British government has had issues with operations on the Golan. In 2008, the government requested Israeli defense contractor Elbit, currently building Watchkeeper drones for the British Army, relocate drone flight tests from the Pik airfield in the Golan Heights to a different field within the Green Line.
This week Patel released a statement detailing 12 meetings she had held, including with Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan.
According to British ITV's political editor, Patel is returning to London on the request of Prime Minister Theresa May, cutting short an official visit to Uganda to "learn her fate" in her ministerial position. Robert Peston said Patel is "set to be sacked," referring specifically to her meeting with Minister Erdan. The meeting, which took place on September 5, had been declined on her behalf by her department officials but was later scheduled by her constituency office, he said.
Patel was accompanied by Lord Stuart Polak, the honorary president of Conservative Friends of Israel, who told the BBC that the meetings were informal and “all very innocent.”
According to a report published by BuzzFeed News on Wednesday, Polak arranged a total of 12 meetings in Israel for Patel, including one with a disability charity called Beit Issie Shapiro. Patel's meeting with the charity raises further questions about potential conflicts of interests, notes the report, as it has showcased products made by OrCam, a client of the consultant firm partly owned by Polak.
The Netanyahu meeting, according to the statement released by Patel, included topics such as her experience growing up in an area of England with a large Jewish community, the Israeli domestic political scene and “prospects for closer collaboration between Israel and the U.K. on development and humanitarian issues.”
However, both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have seized on the affair and demanded an inquiry, warning that Patel’s position would be untenable if she had broken the ministerial code of conduct. The code states that “ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or could reasonably be perceived to arise, between their public duties and their private interests.”
Conservative Member of Parliament Crispin Blunt told the BBC on Wednesday Patel's meetings "would have been alright" if only the Foreign Office had known beforehand.
“Priti Patel has made a grave error of judgement, which goes against the openness, accountability and scrutiny the work of a government minister demands,” said Shas Sheehan, the Liberal Democrats’ international development spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, in an interview with Sky News, Blunt criticized Patel's promotion to her current position, alleging that she was "accelerated" into the U.K. Cabinet because of her Asian heritage, Independent reported on Wednesday.
In her keynote speech at the U.K. Israel Conference earlier this month, Patel celebrated the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, calling it an "indispensable to the creation of a great nation" and expressed her support for a strong U.K.-Israel relationship.
"In a region where many have endured authoritarianism and misrule, Israel stands as a free society and as a beacon. Britain will stand by those values and stand by Israel," she told conference attendees.