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Israel’s anti-BDS minister Gilad Erdan and UK aid minister Priti Patel meeting at Parliament in September. Violating rules, Patel did not disclose the meeting to civil servants.
The UK government was in chaos on Wednesday as the prime minister was accused of covering up her knowledge of secret meetings one of her ministers held with Israelis in August.
International development minister Priti Patel was forced to quit on Wednesday evening saying her actions “fell below the standards of transparency and openness” expected of ministers.
The meetings were arranged by a prominent Israel lobbyist. Patel had already apologized on Monday, admitting she had held 12 such meetings.
She met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other politicians and business people in Israel without informing officials in her own department, the UK Foreign Office or the office of Prime Minister Theresa May.
Patel was forced into the apology after the BBC’s diplomatic editor James Landale broke the story on Friday. It was exposed after Israeli politician Yair Lapid tweeted a photo of the two meeting.
Patel then belatedly informed the Foreign Office while her meetings in Israel were already underway, her deputy told parliament on Tuesday.
According to UK government rules, ministerial meetings discussing official business should be attended and recorded by civil servants – whose role is to serve the government in a nonpartisan fashion.
Theresa May accepted Patel’s resignation after coming under pressure to sack her from opposition lawmakers on Tuesday, who said she had violated the ministerial code of conduct.
Patel claimed she had been in Israel “on a family holiday paid for myself,” but admitted the meetings were “arranged by” Israel lobbyist Stuart Polak, a member of Britain’s unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords.
He is a leading member of Conservative Friends of Israel, and attended all but one of the Patel meetings.
According to the original BBC report, Polak has access to wealthy Conservative donors, and some ministers and members of Parliament “accused Ms. Patel of trying to win favor with wealthy pro-Israeli Conservative donors who could fund a potential future leadership campaign.”
“This is outrageous. She is a Cabinet minister. She just cannot do this,” a government minister told the BBC, “This is about donors and influence.”
In addition to sitting down with Netanyahu, Patel met with the Israeli leader’s close ally Gilad Erdan – Israel’s “strategic affairs” minister who has been put in charge of combating BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights.
But in her Monday apology, Patel did not disclose two further meetings she had with Israeli ministers without the presence of officials.
Al-Qaida have “not attacked Israel”
Another BBC report on Tuesday stated that after returning from Israel, Patel “suggested some of Britain’s aid budget go to the Israeli army” for “humanitarian operations” in the Golan Heights – part of southern Syria which Israel occupied in 1967 and annexed in 1981 in violation of international law.
During parliamentary questions, Patel’s deputy Alistair Burt confirmed she had suggested that UK aid money intended for relief be sent to Israeli army units in the occupied Syrian territory.
He said that their department had ultimately concluded that this was “not appropriate,” since the UK government does not recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.
But Burt defended the mooted proposal as “humanitarian,” saying it was an “entirely reasonable” question for her to ask.
Underreported, but well-documented, the Israeli army occupying the Golan Heights uses its field hospitals to treat anti-government fighters involved in the war in Syria – including members of factions linked to al-Qaida.
Israel’s alliance with such groups is part of its effort to hold back the influence of Hizballah, the powerful Lebanese resistance organization that defeated the Israeli army when it invaded Lebanon in 2006.
Belying “humanitarian” claims, the known al-Qaida-linked extremists are allowed back to fight in Syria after being treated. In an interview with Al Jazeera last year, the former head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency denied that there would be blowback after Israel had gotten “into bed” with the al-Nusra Front – for years al-Qaida’s formal Syrian affiliate.
“The rules of the game in Syria,” said Efraim Halevy, mean that “you can do anything that is not able – is not possible to be done anywhere else.” He defended the group saying, “Al-Qaida to the best of my recollection, has up till now not attacked Israel.”
Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz revealed on Wednesday that Patel had “visited an Israeli military field hospital” in the Golan during her “family holiday.”
This visit was not disclosed in the list Patel released alongside her apology on Monday. Undisclosed meetings
An Israeli military spokesperson told The Guardian that Israel’s foreign ministry had arranged Patel’s visit.
The paper reported that the Israeli army field hospital “assisted both wounded civilians as well as wounded rebel Syrian fighters, some of whom have been accused of being members of jihadi groups fighting the Assad regime.”
The two further September meetings Patel failed to disclose were with Yuval Rotem in New York, director of Israel’s foreign ministry, and another with Erdan in London. Erdan Tweeted the meeting in both English and Hebrew.
Erdan praised Patel in Hebrew as “a brave and sincere leader who supports Israel with all her heart.”
The BBC reported on Wednesday that Conservative Friends of Israel’s Stuart Polak is thought to have been “present at both meetings.”
According to the Conservative Friends of Israel, on 7 September Erdan held meetings with Patel and with communities minister Sajid Javid.
The lobby group said that the Javid meeting was to discuss “steps to counter anti-Israel delegitimization and BDS” and the Patel meeting aimed at advancing “UK-Israel development cooperation, and counter[ing] attempts to delegitimize Israel in international institutions.”
“Delegitimization” is the Israeli government’s propaganda term used to discredit the Palestine solidarity movement, especially BDS.
The Department for Communities and Local Government did not respond to a request for comment, but according to Sky News political editor Faisal Islam, the Javid meeting was correctly disclosed and attended by civil servants.
As extensively reported by The Electronic Intifada, Erdan’s ministry is leading “black-ops” against the Palestine solidarity movement, reportedly including death threats and harassment of Palestinian lawyers in Europe.
Erdan was also implicated in the Israeli embassy scandal in January, after revelations from Al Jazeera’s undercover film The Lobby led to the forced resignation of “senior political officer” Shai Masot.
Erdan’s strategic affairs ministry is staffed by recent members of Israeli spy agencies, including the Mossad, and has a budget of more than $40 million.
What did Downing Street know?
On Wednesday morning, the crisis threatened to engulf the British prime minister herself.
Despite earlier briefings to the press that she had not been informed about Patel’s meetings, a report in The Jewish Chronicle claimed on Wednesday that May’s office had in fact been told about some of the meetings as early as August.
The report also claimed that May’s office even asked Patel to remove a meeting from the list she published Monday, so as not to “embarrass” the Foreign Office.
But 10 Downing Street quickly denied the story, saying both claims were “categorically untrue.”
An anonymous source in May’s office went further, telling The Guardian that the entire report was “complete bollocks.”
The Guardian noted that the prime minister’s office did not explicitly deny The Jewish Chronicle’s claim that in advance of September’s UN General Assembly, May and Patel had discussed “Patel’s plan for UK aid to be shared with the Israelis.”
Regardless of who knew what and when, it seems the Conservative government has deeper questions to answer about the influence of the Israel lobby.
As Labour lawmaker Naz Shah put it in questions to Patel’s deputy Burt on Tuesday, “it seems that British foreign policy on Israel and Palestine is being run by a Conservative-linked lobby group rather than by an independent civil service and an elected government.”
Shah added that this was “just another example of a government who are in disarray as lobby groups, not Downing Street, run our country.”
With translation by Ali Abunimah.
Updated since initial publication.