A British cabinet member has thrown her political future into jeopardy after it emerged that she met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during what she had claimed was a family vacation in Israel this summer.
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The story broke last week during Netanyahu’s visit to London to mark the centennial of the Balfour Declaration. The BBC revealed that International Development Secretary Priti Patel had held a number of meetings during the August trip, including with Netanyahu.
This week Patel released a statement clarifying her position and detailing the 12 meetings she had held, including Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan.
The Netanyahu meeting, according to the statement, included topics such as Patel’s 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.”
No U.K. officials were present and no minutes were kept. The Foreign Office was “aware of the visit while it was underway, but were not informed about it in advance,” her statement read.
Boris Johnson, Britain’s foreign secretary and a fellow Brexiteer, backed his colleague, tweeting that she was “a good friend & we work closely together for GLOBAL BRITAIN. Quite right that she meets w/ people & organisations overseas.”
Patel was accompanied by Lord Polak, the honorary president of Conservative Friends of Israel, who told the BBC that the meetings were informal and “all very innocent.”
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.”
“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.
Prime Minister Theresa May, it emerged, only learned about the meetings last Friday, three months after they occurred. She has since met with Patel to remind her “of the obligations which exist under the ministerial code.”
Chris Doyle, the director of the London-based advocacy organization the Council for Arab British Understanding, said Patel’s statement “didn’t stack up.” It was clear, he continued, that the range and level of meetings showed that they had not been spontaneously arranged while the minister was on holiday, but rather coordinated in advance.
“It stretches credibility and trust in her,” Doyle said, adding that as development secretary, she was in charge of a large budget dedicated to projects in the Palestinian territories. The fact that she had met exclusively with Israelis and neglected to hold talks with any Palestinian representatives showed both a lack of interest and impartiality, he concluded.
Some political figures have accused Patel of trying to court pro-Israel donors who could fund a future leadership challenge.
“I just don’t know,” said Doyle. “But when you run a visit in such a way then you run the risk of people interpreting your actions in an unkind light.”
The affair highlights fracture lines in domestic British politics. In December 2014, then-Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne was on a private vacation in Israel for Christmas when he took the opportunity to meet Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
That visit passed without incident. The meeting was coordinated and in the presence of then-British ambassador and former Osborne school friend Matthew Gould.
However, this is a different Tory government, wracked with turmoil over Brexit and one in which the so-called old boys’ network has less sway. It is also one that is more prone than previous governments to clash with the “professional” civil servants, the great majority of whom are staunch opponents of Brexit.