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Secret meetings in Israel leave Priti Patel, British government red-faced

Vidya Ram London | Updated on January 09, 2018

Priti Patel, UK’s International Development Minister Reuters

The crisis engulfing the British government showed no signs of abating as pressure mounted on the country’s International Development Minister and most senior Indian-origin politician, Priti Patel, amid further revelations around her dealings with senior members of the Israeli establishment this year.

Patel was forced to cut short a trip to Africa on Wednesday and return to the UK amid accusations and counter-accusations over who exactly knew what about meetings held in Britain, Israel and the US in August and September this year, as well as plans to provide development aid funding to the Israeli army.

Tenders apology

On Monday, Patel publicly apologised for failing to disclose 12 meetings with senior Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a “family holiday” to Israel in August. After initially suggesting that the FCO and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had been in the loop since the outset, she admitted they had been made aware of the meetings while the trip was underway. While Downing Street initially stood by her, subsequent revelations have made her position increasingly tenuous.

On Wednesday, The Guardian reported that sources within her department confirmed further meetings with Israeli officials in September that were also not carried out according to ministerial procedures, including a meeting with Gilad Erdan, Israel’s minister for public security, on the House of Commons’ terrace in early September. She also met a foreign ministry official in New York later that month.

Reports in The Jewish Chronicle, however, suggested that Patel had disclosed these to Downing Street, but was advised not to reveal details of them as they could embarrass the British Foreign Office – something Downing Street has strenuously denied.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz also reported on Wednesday that Patel had visited the Golan Heights during her visit. This would go against the long-standing British foreign policy that has treated the region as illegally occupied Syrian land, and not Israeli territory

It also emerged that Patel had since commenced discussions within her department over sending aid money to the Israeli army for work in the Golan Heights.

While Downing Street insisted on Tuesday that it was not aware of the plans until the media reports, The Jewish Chronicle story on Wednesday suggested they had been looped in. The stand-off has led to much speculation over the extent of Downing Street’s knowledge and involvement in Patel’s meetings. “Was No 10 using Patel as a means of evading Boris [Johnson] and the FCO?” tweeted Jon Trickett, Labour’s spokesperson on Cabinet office matters.

The decision to allow Patel to stay after the initial details of the undisclosed meetings emerged faced widespread criticism both from within the Conservative Party and from opposition parties, including Labour, which called for her resignation or an investigation into whether the ministerial code had been breached.

The controversy comes just a week after the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon stepped down over sexual harassment allegations. Also under pressure is Johnson over incorrect remarks he made to a parliamentary committee that could lengthen the sentence of Nazanin Zaghar-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian national, who has been jailed in Iran.

Patel, the MP for the Essex constituency of Witham, entered Parliament in 2010. Born in London, Patel was appointed diaspora champion for the British Indian community by former Prime Minister David Cameron, as part of its effort to strengthen ties between the two countries, and to win over more of the British Gujarati and wider Indian community, which has traditionally voted Labour to the Conservative Party. She has been a strong cheerleader of the Modi government, publicly praising a number of its policies, including demonetisation.

She has continued to play a prominent role in the bilateral relationship; last year, the British government described her as their “first foot” to India as she toured Ahmedabad, Kolkata and New Delhi.

Last year, Patel courted controversy as a vocal ‘leave’ campaigner, telling sections of the Indian community that leaving the European Union presented an opportunity for Britain to ease immigration rules for non-EU citizens. “By voting to leave we can take back control of our immigration policies, save our curry houses and join the rest of the world,” she told the Evening Standard newspaper in May.

Last August she told The Hindu that the UK-India bilateral relationship would benefit from Brexit, and that the EU had “held back” the economic development of India as they would not do a trade deal.

Published on November 08, 2017

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