Alistair Burt failed to be granted access to the most senior Israeli politicians because of unofficial trip by former international development secretary.
Middle East minister Alistair Burt struggled to gain access to the most senior Israeli politicians on a visit to the country in August because Priti Patel had got there first with the freelance trip that led to her downfall, it has been claimed.
Because Patel, a cabinet minister at the time, had made the unofficial prior appointments, it made Burt’s official visit less important in Israeli eyes and angered the British Foreign Office.
Patel, the international development secretary until Wednesday night, met the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on 22 August while Burt and Tony Kay, the deputy British ambassador in Israel, were only granted an audience with Michael Oren, the deputy minister at the Israeli prime minister’s office later that day.
It is understood that Patel’s earlier visit to Netanyahu was mentioned at Burt’s meeting in Jerusalem, meaning that Foreign Office officials should then have been advised of her trip. The Foreign Office dispute that Patel’s meeting with Netanyahu was mentioned at this meeting.
However, Burt told MPs this week that Patel first informed the Foreign Office of her meetings with Israeli officials and politicians on 24 August, two days later, coinciding with the end of Burt’s visit to the region that concluded with a launch ceremony of El Al Airlines’ first Boeing 787 Dreamliner plane at Ben Gurion airport.
Burt’s three-day visit to Palestine and Israel, from 21 to 24 August, was an important one for the minister at a time of great political sensitivity in the Middle East. He noticeably managed to gain access to more senior figures in Palestine than in Israel.
Apart from Oren, Burt’s Israel itinerary included meetings with Tzachi Hanegbi, the minister for regional cooperation, Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List party, and Yuval Rotem, the director general of the foreign affairs ministry.
By contrast Patel met with Netanyahu, as well as Gilad Erdan, the minister for public security, information and strategic affairs, and Yair Lapid, the leader of the Yesh Atid party. She also met Rotem, meaning her visit was duplicatory and more high level. No officials were present at Patel’s meetings, other than the Conservative Friends of Israel president, Lord Polak.
Burt had little difficulty meeting the most senior figures in the Palestinian territories including Riyad al-Maliki, the foreign minister, Shukri Bishara, the finance minister, Dr Sabri Saidam, the education minister, and Saeb Muhammad Salih Erekat, the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s chief negotiator.
It is not clear if Patel knew that her visits, squeezed into a two-week summer holiday, were going to coincide with Burt’s, but normally someone in her job would be told of overseas visits by UK ministers as a matter of course.
This raises questions about whether Patel intended to keep the meetings secret or was genuinely naive about the need to stick to ministerial protocol and inform the Foreign Office of her plan to meet Netanyahu.
Polak, in his pro-Israel lobbying, has previously used his influence in Downing Street to push his strongly held views on Theresa May and her predecessor as prime minister David Cameron.
In March 2014, Polak and the Conservative party treasurer Andrew Feldman persuaded Cameron to cut paragraphs criticising Israel’s settlement policy from his laudatory Knesset speech.
The senior diplomat who had a role in drafting that address was the then director of the Foreign Office’s near east and north Africa department, David Quarrey, who is now the UK ambassador to Israel.
A final question arises over whether the Foreign Office agreed with Patel to effectively not tell No 10 of what had happened or if No 10 was informed, but not the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, or May.
The Labour deputy leader, Tom Watson, has said that Patel met officials from the British consulate general in Jerusalem on the trip, but has not specified when or for what purpose.
Next Wednesday, the foreign affairs select committee will be taking evidence from the Foreign Office’s permanent secretary, Sir Simon McDonald, allowing MPs to examine who knew what and when about Patel’s meetings.