Anatomy of a scandal: Thoughts on the Priti Patel resignation and Israel

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

The story of Priti Patel’s resignation could be a tempest in a teapot, but given the massive coverage, which is the main reason she was forced to resign, it is likely symbolic of a much larger struggle. Patel has been a member of Parliament for Witham since 2010 and since May 2016 the International Development Secretary. The post has existed since 1997 when it was made separate from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It has previously been held seven individuals, including Hilary Benn.

Patel was Minister of State for Employment under David Cameron, a prominent woman from a minority background. She was one of only two members of cabinet under Theresa May from a minority background.

What went wrong?

The Financial Times has put together a helpful timeline of how the “scandal” unfolded. The key points are these: On August 12 she travelled to Israel during a parliamentary recess for what was supposedly a “holiday.” Israeli politician and leader of Yesh Atid Yair Lapid tweeted a photo meeting her at a restaurant on August 24. He wrote in English that she is a “true friend of Israel.” Very few people seem to have noticed at the time. According to the FT “the UK Foreign Office is unaware of her trip.” In addition she had 12 other meetings, including with “Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, Gilad Erdan, the minister of public security, and Yuval Rotem, a diplomat. The meetings are organised by Stuart Polak, a lobbyist and the honorary president of the Conservative Friends of Israel. Lord Polak attends all but one of the meetings. No UK officials are present. Back in London, Ms Patel asks her department about directing aid to the Israeli army’s humanitarian work in the Golan Heights.”

She met Gilad Erdan again on September 7 which the FT claims “is organised by Ms Patel’s parliamentary office and is not made public.” The FT also claims that when PM May met Netanyahu on November 2nd for the Balfour events she was “unaware” that he had met Patel. Supposedly May UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson only find out from the BBC about the trip on November 3.

The BBC’s November 3 report is “Patel held undisclosed meetings with Israel” and written by James Landale, the diplomatic correspondent. It immediately results in Labour writing to May “demanding a Cabinet Office investigation into Patel” for “undisclosed meetings in Israel.” Patel oddly never tweeted about Israel, including her meetings . there or much else, except for re-tweeting a bit of a speech she gave for the 100 anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Given her apparent interest in aiding Syrians who were arriving in Israel via the Golan, it is unsurprising she had tweeted about the White Helmets.

According to the Nov. 3 BBC report “According to one source, at least one of the meetings was held at the suggestion of the Israeli ambassador to London.” It claimed that “Ministers are by convention supposed to tell the Foreign Office when they are conducting official business overseas,” while Downing Street claimed the trip was a holiday. Patel told the Guardian on Nov. 3 that Johnson knew about the trip. She claimed that the FCO was working against her. She “accused Foreign Office officials of briefing against her following claims she broke the ministerial code by holding undeclared meetings in Israel.” According to this report Johnson wanted to reincorporate her office back into the FCO. The Guardian notes “Some ministers and MPs accused Ms Patel of trying to win favour with wealthy pro-Israeli Conservative donors who could fund a potential future leadership campaign. Others accused her of conducting her own “freelance foreign policy” on Israel. Ms Patel is a long-standing supporter of Israel and a former vice-chairman of CFI (Conservative Friends of Israel).” According to the BBC a source said: “What does it say to the rest of the Middle East if a senior Cabinet minister in charge of Britain’s huge aid budget disappears for 48 hours from a family holiday in Israel and is under the wing of a pro-Israeli lobbyist?”

Patel apologized on November 6. “In hindsight, I can see…how meetings were set up and reported in a way which did not accord with the usual procedures. I am sorry for this and I apologise for it,” she said. She released a statement as well. Then she jetted off to Africa on November 7th, returned abruptly on November 8th and resigned. “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. I offer a fulsome apology to you and to the government for what has happened and offer my resignation,” she said.

Why the scandal snowballed

If Patel had done something similar in another, less sensitive, country it is likely her actions would not have been a scandal. Had it been in Kenya or Laos, one cannot imagine it being seen in the same light. However Israel is always a contentious issue. It is likely people with knowledge of her whereabouts spread rumors about it and that a combination of interests acted independently, to build the case for her resignation. Allegations that she was launching a “coup” against foreign policy is part of the story. What role did the FCO play in the scandal? Were stories “leaked,” as some have suggested. If May knew about “some” of the meetings, what was the last straw? Could it be the November 6 report from Landale and the BBC that the meetings she had included Netanyahu? Replies to his tweet on that story had numerous cals for her investigation and sacking.

Is it about Patel or about May?

The Jewish Chronicle, in a series of pieces, laid out a convincing case that “something doesn’t add up,” in the linear telling of the scandal. Stephen Pollard wrote on November 8th “I was told very matter of factly that there would soon be an announcement of cooperation between the UK and Israel over aid in Africa…I was told that it had been signed off between DfID [Department for International Development] and Number Ten, but that the FCO had kicked off because it felt its toes were being trodden on.” He concluded, “In all my time around politics I have never known this source be wrong or spin me. And yet today, Number Ten is saying it had no idea about the plan.”

Pollard further noted on November 9: “Number 10 instructed Development Secretary Priti Patel not to include her meeting with the Israel foreign ministry official Yuval Rotem in New York on 18 September in her list of undisclosed meetings with Israelis which was published on Monday, the JC has learned.” Furthermore the reason it was not included is because “it would embarrass the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.” Following on the theme of something doesn’t add up, he notes that Middle East minister Alistair Burt and deputy British ambassador to Israel Tony Kay met Michael Oren on August 22nd and “according to the notes of the meeting, Mr Oren referred to Ms Patel having had a successful meeting with Mr Netanyahu earlier.” So the inference is obviously the British embassy and the FCO knew about the Netanyahu meeting. Thus the claim that it was “breaking” news on November 6th would not be accurate. It was news to the public, but not the government.

The revelations coincided with Netanyahu’s trip to the UK as part of the Balfour events. That gave them added weight and they could be used against the government as a whole. By the time the scandal had become more public thousands of people were allegedly glued to a flight tracking website to watch her plane return to London. There’s no doubt that Patel was disliked by some for her stance on Brexit (she supported it), but there appears to be more to it. “She will be the second Cabinet minister that Mrs May will have been forced to sack in just seven days, and for total different reasons,” notes The Sun.

Patel became a lightning rod for criticism. A DFID source told The Sun: “No UK Government officials were present for these discussions, and they were set up and reported in a way which did not accord with the usual procedures”. Furthermore the Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett was a robust critic of the handling of the affair. He wondered on November 7 why she “retain’s the PM’s confidence.” So while the JC was trying to make the issue about Number 10, it was also about questions of confidence and distracting from May’s ability to do work. There was a feeling of a great scandal that could damage the government’s image.

Israel loses a “true friend”

The rise and fall of Patel appears to have lost Israel a budding friend in the UK. She could have been a rising star and certainly Israeli politicians who rushed to cultivate and meet with her thought so. But their own meetings torpedoed their career. It isn’t the first time that Israelis had high hopes for someone abroad and then miscalculated. Netanyahu’s bizarre “gamble” on Mitt Romney’s victory in 2012 didn’t auger well for relations with Obama. Israelis who thought Michael Flynn or others might be a “friend” in the White House have learned to be cautious.

Israelis aren’t the only ones watching the rising fortunes of politicians who are keen on the country. Michael Gove and others who seem close to Israel are targeted by pro-Palestinian groups. Given that fact it would behove Israeli politicians to walk softly when hanging out for lunch with British ministers who come to Israel.

In this case it doesn’t seem that the Israeli officials tweeting about their meetings necessarily drove the scandal. What drove the scandal appears to have been other elements, including the FCO and also May’s desire not to have it continue. The press and opposition also helped add a lot of fuel to make it seem “murky” and “secret.”

Boris Johnson, “winner” or not? 

One of the issues involved in Patel’s visit was headlined at the Independent as a visit to an “Israel military hospital in illegally occupied Golan Heights.” Their information came from Haaretz. “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,” wrote Haaretz without giving a source where it got the information. 

Jonathan Freedland at The Guardian notes that “Were it not for Patel, the dominant scandal of the week would be the foreign secretary’s testimony that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual UK-Iranian citizen, now jailed in Iran, had been engaged in “teaching people journalism” in that country – a claim that contradicts and undermines the insistence of her employer and family that she was simply on holiday. With a casual aside, Johnson has risked a UK citizen spending an extra five years in an Iranian jail.” Thus the idea is that it distracted from calls for Johnson to resign.

Doesn’t Johnson benefit in another way? He removes a member of the government who was seen as “freelancing” in foreign policy, conducting her own policy and not deferring to the FCO?

It is certainly a lesson for Israel. If Israel wants to keep its friends abroad it should also have their interests at heart. Many Israeli politicians like to brag a bit and post about what they have done. They might ask if that is the best policy. Some Noblesse oblige could be in order. In this case it isn’t as bad as 1985 when press leaks by Israeli officials forced the country to end a clandestine airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, potentially causing hardship and death to many of those waiting.

What about anti-semitism

In a piece at Tablet Eylon Aslan-Levy assert that “there isn’t an antisemitic undertone to the reporting. But the press spin of secret meetings, with questions about wealthy Jewish lobbyists helping Israel gain underhand influence over British policy, runs the risk of pushing some worrying buttons.” He goes on, “if the news cycle in Britain decides to drag this story on rather than jump to the next manufactured crisis, Britain’s Jewish community will be unnerved by what a bored punditocracy could do with such fecund material for a conspiracy.” Tom Gross has asserted in i24 that the ousting might be due to “undercurrents of anti-semitism.”

Other on twitter have taken to debating whether or not anti-semitism played a role. Some note that had she not been involved with Israel there would not have been the same kind of scandal. The UK has been obsessed with the notion of a powerful “Israel lobby” in the past. One writer noted in 2012 at The Telegraph ” It is hard to be certain to what extent this reluctance to criticise Tel Aviv is due to the influence of the Israeli lobby in Britain, or fear of offending Israel’s international patron, the United States.” Al-Jazeera has gone to great lengths to “reveal” the extent of the “lobby.” At the same time Nigel Farage got himself in hot water for using the term “Jewish lobby.” So far it appears that only “undercurrents” are involved.

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The Independent sought to show the army connection

UK aid for the Golan? Not even a good idea

Ron Liddle at The Spectator has argued that the UK should give foreign aid to Israel. However The Independent headlined this as central to the real scandal. The Nov. 7 article showed Israeli soldiers and noted “May’s spokesman highlighted that the country’s army runs a hospital for Syrian refugees, but said the UK currently provides no financial support to Israeli forces and that there would be no change in policy.”

Patel wanted to help hospitals that help Syrian refugees, but some the British press, or those that leaked details to them, sought to spin this as giving aid to the Israeli army.  The PM’s spokesman noes: “She was absolutely clear on everybody she had met, and [her department] has been very clear this conversation did take place. But there hasn’t been any change in policy resulting from that. There is no UK financial support for the Israeli army.” In a November 8th opinion piece at The Independent Matthew Norman highlights the Israeli army issue, front and center, in ALL CAPS as well. ” Patel never mentioned that to No 10 or the Foreign Office before the event, or after it when by eeriest happenstance she suddenly advocated giving foreign aid to – wait for it, wait for it; it’s worth the wait – the Israeli army. THE. ISRAELI. ARMY.”

However Patel likely didn’t want to give aid to the Israel army, but rather a field hospital. It is probably for the best that the UK didn’t get tied up with giving that aid because then it would have UK NGOs and the UK government having a say on refugees from Syria entering Israel and would become a diplomatic issue involving the Golan, mandating treatment in one place and not another. Since that part of the Golan may eventually fall to the regime and there may be sensitive issues involved, it may be for the best that no plan came to fruition.

The Foreign Office “sabotaged” her

A Nov. 9 article at The Times notes “friends of Priti Patel believe that the Foreign Office was behind leaked details of her ill-fated trip to Israel because it wanted to kill off her attempt to change government policy towards the Jewish state.” Another piece at The Daily Mail claims “friends point out the Foreign Office learned of the meetings in late August but did not apparently pass on the information to Downing Street, which was blind-sided by media reports on the issue last week.” They sought to damage her. “The Foreign Office learned of the meetings in late August but did not apparently pass on the information to Downing Street, which was blind-sided by media reports on the issue last week. One friend suggested the department had taken revenge against her after she angered them. Reports yesterday said she was livid about her sacking and was ready to ‘go off like a shotgun’. And ministers were facing fresh questions last night over what they knew about Miss Patel’s dealings in Israel.”

This would seem to be the most plausible explanation for the scandal. Otherwise it is difficult to explain its timeline. What still doesn’t make sense then is why did they wait until November to leak the details? Was it about Balfour day? Was it really to distract from Johnson’s problems? That would see far to crafty. It could be that once the press began to sniff around, they fed bit by bit. That would explain why the Netanyahu meeting and the Golan issue, which were the final straws, came several day after the initial revelations. Certainly the FCO didn’t want another minister freelancing foreign policy or making her own connections. They didn’t want her to take any glory either. Also the FCO has tended, like the State Department in the US, to be more hostile to Israel.

The real lesson: The next politicians considering being pro-Israel will think twice

The real lesson, and probably the message enemies of Patel wanted to send, is to make the next up and coming UK politician who wants to be pro-Israel to think outside the box on policies in Israel, think twice. A lot of amateurism surrounded the Patel visit and this is what her critics were able to use against her. Why would a minister on holiday have so many high level meetings? Why meet the Israeli Prime Minister in a manner that might be interpreted as “secret.” If she had felt it was all out in the open she would have tweeted about it, as she does other things.

Israel is a sensitive issue in the UK. Although the official stance of the government is that it works closely with Israel, there is a lot of hostility to Israel in many sectors. Some of that is just pro-Palestinian or “balanced” foreign policy. But there are also obsessive voices for whom Israel is a unique and paramount issue, a country whose actions are seen as uniquely bad on the world stage, or uniquely unhelpful to Britain’s work in the Middle East. For this reason work with Israel is never easy, never just a story of an aid minister meeting Israeli politicians, as it might be if the same minister met someone from Vietnam.

The UK Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry’s visit to Israel on November 9th is more standard operating procedure. She talked about the “occupation” and how criticism of Israel is important. An article notes: “I love the liberal democracy that is Israel. And it’s in contrast to many other countries around it. But it’s not perfect. And at least one of the reasons is the continued occupation of Palestine, and the misery of the Palestinians. And that is a daily problem that needs to be addressed.” She met with the right people as well “several MKs from the Zionist Union, peace activists and former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner.” Unlike when UK politicians travel to Saudi Arabia, Turkey or China, she also played the “real friends critique” story. “We’re very critical of the Israeli government. Jeremy would be extremely critical of the Israeli government. But guess what? A lot of Israelis are pretty critical of the Israeli government, too. This is part of being friends. We can tell each other the truth. We think the Israeli government has lost its way.” One wonders when the UK tells the government of Iraq it has “lost its way” or the government of Morocco or Jordan. Well, surely no.

This is the real field that Israel plays in when it comes to the UK. Its relationship and view of it is unique. For instance, speaking at a freedom of the press event in Egypt Stephen Pritchard, a board member of the Organization of News Ombudsmen and the Observer’s first readers’ editor, https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2Ftekaldas%2Fvideos%2F10104576084925974%2F&show_text=0&width=560” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>was quoted by Timothy Kaldas on Facebook telling an audience: “It’s very easy to look at [Egypt’s press freedom ranking] and become alarmed, but I don’t think you should, because… there are many, many cultural differences to be taken into account. I come from Europe, where we have a more irreverent view of public life. It’s not considered to be insulting to be rude about the head of state or government. In other nations that isn’t possible. It’s culturally different.”

Not tough love, no “lost its way.” And that’s part of the Patel story as well. Had she done the same in Egypt she might very well be in her job. Perhaps not, because the FCO would still see her as poaching their work.

 

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