British PM Theresa May hit by new scandal over minister's Israel meetings

Wednesday November 8 2017

Priti Patel.

This file photo taken on September 12, 2017 shows Britain's International Development Secretary Priti Patel arriving to attend the weekly meeting of the Cabinet at Downing Street in central London. British Prime Minister Theresa May summoned her back from a trip to Africa on November 8, 2017, following a row over unauthorised meetings in Israel, prompting speculation she will be the second minister in a week to be sacked. PHOTO | DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS | AFP 

By AFP
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LONDON

Britain's aid minister faced the sack on Wednesday over unauthorised meetings in Israel, as she became the latest Cabinet member caught up in a whirlwind of scandals rocking Prime Minister Theresa May's government.

May summoned International Development Secretary Priti Patel back from a trip to Africa to explain her talks with Israeli politicians, in which she reportedly raised the possibility of Britain diverting aid to the Israeli army.

MEETINGS

Patel had apologised on Monday for holding 12 separate meetings — including with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — during a family holiday to Israel in August, without notifying the Foreign Office or Downing Street in advance.

After a public reprimand from the prime minister, Patel left London on Tuesday on a three-day trip to Uganda, but a government source told AFP she was returning home on Wednesday at May's request.

If she is sacked, Patel would become the second Cabinet minister in a week to leave May's government, after Michael Fallon quit as defence secretary on November 1 following allegations of sexual harassment.

Britain is facing its biggest peacetime challenge in Brexit, but May has struggled to keep her ministers in line since losing her parliamentary majority in a snap June election.

Months of public divisions over the negotiations with the EU have in recent days given way to scandals over foreign affairs and sexual abuse.

SCANDALS

May's deputy Damian Green is being investigated for groping a journalist in 2014 — which he denies — while a similar probe is underway into the behaviour of junior trade minister Mark Garnier towards his secretary.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has meanwhile been accused of jeopardising the case of a British woman jailed in Iran, after appearing to suggest she was training journalists at the time — something her family strongly denies.

May put off a mooted reshuffle after her election setback, but some MPs have called on her to act to assert her power over a government that looks increasingly adrift.

AID

On Monday, Patel revealed details of her meetings in Israel, which included with NGOs and businesses, and said they were arranged by Lord Stuart Polak, the honorary president of lobbying group Conservative Friends of Israel.

But it emerged late on Tuesday there had been another two unauthorised meetings in September, with Israel's Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan in London and senior foreign ministry official Yuval Rotem in New York.

"I don't understand what more she needs to do to be sacked," one unnamed minister told the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

During her meetings, Patel discussed the possibility of British aid being used to support medical assistance for Syrian refugees arriving in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Downing Street said.

Reports suggest however that she did not explain to May that this involved supplying funding to the Israeli army, which has facilitated the treatment of more than 3,100 wounded refugees in Israeli hospitals since 2013.

FUNDING

Britain views the Golan Heights as occupied territory and a minister told MPs on Tuesday that funding the Israeli Defence Forces there was "not appropriate".

In a further development on Wednesday, Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported that Patel visited a military field hospital in the Golan Heights as a guest of the government.

Patel's ministry declined to comment on the report.

Patel was a leading campaigner for Britain to leave the European Union in last year's referendum, and is a prominent figure in May's Cabinet.

The daughter of Ugandan Indians, the 45-year-old has been an MP since 2010 and is widely believed to have ambitions on Downing Street.

CODE

On Monday, she apologised that her "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".

But the main opposition Labour Party has demanded an investigation into whether her behaviour breached the ministerial code.

Shadow minister Jon Trickett said May should explain why "she believes that Priti Patel can stay in post".

The Palestinian ambassador to Britain, Manuel Hassassian, said the revelations were "shocking".

"If a Cabinet minister goes along and says she wants to funnel money to the IDF, and to funnel money to occupied Golan Heights, this is in total contradiction of the main policies of this government that is pushing for a two-state solution," he told ITV news on Tuesday.