Priti Patel’s Blunder

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Priti Patel | Picture: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development
via Flickr Creative Commons

Americans consumed with domestic government and sex scandals can be forgiven for not being aware of the recurring scandals in the United Kingdom that are embroiling Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government. The latest concerns the now former secretary of state for international development, Priti Patel. A strong Israel supporter in a largely pro-Israel government, Patel, 45, took a private family vacation to the Jewish state in August.

Unlike most visitors to Israel, but par for the course for visiting dignitaries, she met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a dozen Israeli politicians, including Yair Lapid — the head of the Yesh Atid party — and Yuval Rotem, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official. What Patel neglected to do was clear the meetings in advance with the British Foreign Ministry or May. This was a clear breach of protocol. Additionally, her visit to a military base on the Golan Heights, while not objectionable in our eyes, violated the British policy of not recognizing Israel’s annexation of that territory.

The man who helped set up the meetings, Conservative peer Stuart Polak, is a prominent pro-Israel activist. He attended all but one of Patel’s meetings with Israeli leaders.

After her vacation, Patel suggested that some of Britain’s aid budget go to the Israeli army and inquired if Britain could support Israel’s humanitarian operations for Syrian victims of that country’s civil war. When the earlier meetings came to light last week, the public was aghast at what was widely viewed as a conflicted government minister attempting to sway her country’s policies after backdoor lobbying sessions by a foreign power.

Patel resigned on Nov. 8. Earlier she offered a non-apology, writing, “In hindsight, I can see how my enthusiasm to engage in this way could be misread, and how meetings were set up and reported in a way which did not accord with the usual procedures.”

The loss of Patel is unfortunate, particularly because what she was advocating would have been welcome developments in the Middle East. It is no secret that Israel has incurred great cost in treating wounded Syrians in a civil war it had nothing to do with, even as it is forced to respond to a deteriorating security landscape — Iran is reportedly building a permanent military base just 30 miles from the border — made possible by that war. But the way Patel went about doing things while visiting a foreign government was plainly wrong.

Some Brits are castigating May for reprimanding Patel and using it as evidence of British bias against Israel. British society does have worrying anti-Semitic strains, but in this case, we’re not so sure. While Patel could have been a very good friend to Israel, her clumsy execution was bad form. As one of her country’s senior officials, she should have known better.