A British minister has apologised after misleading the public about secret meetings she had with the Israeli government organised by an influential pro-Israeli lobby group in the UK.
Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, held undisclosed meetings in Israel last August without telling the Foreign Office. Details of her meeting with senior Israeli politicians including the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were revealed by the BBC last week.
Patel insisted that she had gone to Israel on a “family holiday” but her trip, which was organised by Lord Polak honorary president of Conservative Friends of Israel, was described by critics as an attempt to win favour with wealthy pro-Israeli Conservative donors who could fund a potential future leadership campaign. The Telegraph also reported that Patel had suggested to Netanyahu that the UK should give aid to the Israeli army.
Embarrassed by the revelations of the 12 meetings she held in 12 days during a “family holiday” in Israel, Patel attempted to diffuse the incident insisting last week during comments to the Guardian that the British Foreign Secretary “Boris [Johnson] knew about the visit. The point is that the Foreign Office did know about this, Boris knew about [the trip]”.
Yesterday, Patel was forced to make a U-turn, while coming clean about her secret trip to Israel. Patel contradicted her previous remarks about informing the Foreign Office. Clarifying her comments to the Guardian she said: “This quote may have given the impression that the Secretary of State had informed the Foreign Secretary about the visit in advance. The Secretary of State would like to take this opportunity to clarify that this was not the case. The Foreign Secretary did become aware of the visit, but not in advance of it.”
Last week Patel insisted that she had only met with “people and organisations”. “It is not about who else I met,” she said, “I have friends out there.”
In her clarification, Patel was forced to admit that she did not just meet with “people and organisations”. “This quote may be read as implying that the Secretary of State was saying that the meetings that had so far been publicly reported were the only ones which took place on her visit. The Secretary of State would like to take the opportunity to correct this impression: she is clear that other meetings also took place on her visit, in addition to those which had been publicly reported at the time of her making these statements,” Patel confessed.
While Patel has apologised for misleading the public, critics have accused the minister of lying especially as she had kept details about her meeting secret for so long. The situation is made worse by the fact that rather than informing Downing Street of her trip, both Patel and Johnson kept it entirely secret until it was unearthed by the media last week.
Equally revealing is the revelation that at yesterday’s Downing Street lobby briefing, the prime minister’s spokesman confirmed that Prime Minister Theresa May did not know about any of the meetings until last Friday, some three months after they took place and one day after the prime minister held her own meeting with Netanyahu.
While Patel’s secret meeting with the Israeli’s is seen by many as a clear breach of the ministerial code of conduct, some have pointed to the paralysis within May’s government in punishing this kind of rogue behaviour, especially when it comes to UK’s relations with Israel. In any ordinary circumstances a member of government embarking on a secret diplomatic mission and holding unauthorised talks with a foreign power would be an instant firing offence.