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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

What Priti Patel's resignation tells us about Brexit, Theresa May, 'global Britain' and UK relations with Israel

The lure of Israeli hi-tech will probably outweigh historic responsibility to the Palestinians, writes Alan Philps

Priti Patel, leaves after a cabinet meeting in Downing Street in central London last year. Reuters
Priti Patel, leaves after a cabinet meeting in Downing Street in central London last year. Reuters

When Priti Patel, Britain’s international development secretary, set off in August for a holiday in Israel, she did not to tell her cabinet colleagues what she was really up to. The “holiday” turned out to be packed with meetings organised by a pro-Israeli lobbyist. She met Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, several other ministers and senior officials and representatives of Israeli tech firms and charities.

The result was that when Mr Netanyahu came to London last week to meet Theresa May, the British prime minister, did not know that her guest was already fully briefed on British policy from his talks with Ms Patel. Cue outrage that a cabinet minister should have violated the ministerial code of conduct and put the prime minister in an embarrassing position.

Ms Patel made it worse by insisting that she had told Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, who was a fellow campaigner for Britain to leave the European Union in last year’s referendum, about the trip in advance, when she plainly had not.

And then it emerged that she had asked her department to give money to the Israeli army to support clinics where it treats wounded Syrians on the occupied Golan Heights. This could never happen: Britain does not recognise the de facto Israeli annexation of the Syrian territory, nor does it give taxpayers’ money to well-funded armies in wealthy countries.

It was then revealed that Ms Patel had had more unannounced meetings in London in September with Israeli officials, including the public security minister, Gilad Erdan. Under severe pressure, Ms Patel resigned from the UK government late on Wednesday evening.

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This sorry saga has been variously interpreted: as a sign of Mrs May’s weakness; as proof that two of leading lights of the Leave campaign – Ms Patel and Mr Johnson, who is under fire for his thoughtless and potentially harmful remarks on a British-Iranian woman detained in Iran – are unfit for public office; or more dramatically that Britain, which once ruled a quarter of the world, is now a banana monarchy incapable of running its own government.

In a valedictory dispatch after four years as New York Times bureau chief in London, Steven Erlanger concluded this week that Britain, once famed for common sense and pragmatism, “has become nearly unrecognisable to its European allies”.

But there is a simpler, and perhaps even more disturbing, explanation to Ms Patel’s secret working holiday. It is that the vision of “global Britain”, which motivates the Brexiteers, is embodied her actions.

With no clear direction from the prime minster, members of her cabinet make up their own rules, particularly when it comes to the Brexiteers who see their country, once unshackled from the European behemoth, bestriding the globe as in the days of empire.

Ms Patel’s embrace of Israel was foreshadowed in May by a British vote in an obscure corner of the United Nations system. For the first time, Britain voted against a motion at the World Health Assembly, the governing body of the World Health Organisation, calling on Israel to provide improved access to health services in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem and the Occupied Syrian Golan Heights”. Britain, the only member of the EU to vote against, justified the vote on the grounds that health should not be politicised.

But this is a difficult argument to sustain when Britain has been happy to vote in favour of similar, and indeed stronger, motions at the World Health Assembly in the past and at a time when living conditions in Gaza are deteriorating at a rapid rate.

In this case, Britain’s only allies in the 'no' vote were the United States, Australia, Canada, Israel, Guatemala and Togo. Israel and the Anglosphere are seen by Brexiteers as Britain’s partners of choice in the future (there was talk of strategic partnership with India, until it emerged that the only thing the Indian government wants from Britain is to raise the entry quota for Indian nationals, which is out of the question in the current anti-immigrant climate).

At the time of the vote, it was explained that Britain had to stick closely to Washington as the key post-Brexit partner. Thus Britain’s historic responsibility to the Palestinians in the centenary year of the Balfour Declaration should be forgotten; Brexit would mean a fresh start, where only trading interests mattered.

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Ms Patel grasped this chance with both hands. Unfortunately, her portfolio obliged her to fund the Palestinian Authority along with the other European states, supposedly to build up administrative capacity ahead of the arrival of a Palestinian state.

Given the absence of any chance of a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future, it could be argued that propping up the Palestinian Authority is a waste of money and that the Israeli taxpayer should pay for services for the Palestinians. But that is another issue. The least that Ms Patel could do would be to visit the Palestinians and find out how the money is spent. Instead, she preferred to see only the Israeli side.

Earlier this year, it was easy for the British government to hold tight to Washington, however erratic the policies of the White House. But the Trump administration’s undermining of the Iran nuclear agreement has been a step too far even for Mrs May’s government. The foreign secretary has declared that the deal, for all its faults, is a pillar of regional security.

Now, at the government’s moment of greatest confusion, Ms Patel went too far and was too fast in setting up a new partnership with Israel. But no one should be in any doubt that post-Brexit, when Britain is no longer in the European Union, the lure of Israeli hi-tech will outweigh historic responsibility to the Palestinians.