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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

UK minister Priti Patel resigns over secret Israeli meetings

The international development secretary was ordered home from an overseas trip after requesting funds to pay for an Israel army humanitarian project in the occupied Golan Heights

British International Secretary Priti Patel has resigned from her role over the growing scandal over her secret meetings with senior Israeli officials.  Neil Hall/ EPA
British International Secretary Priti Patel has resigned from her role over the growing scandal over her secret meetings with senior Israeli officials. Neil Hall/ EPA

A senior UK government minister has resigned after a series of secret meetings with Israeli officials, including the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Priti Patel, the international development secretary, returned home early from a trip to Uganda and was summoned to Downing Street to speak with prime minister Theresa May about the scandal.

Afterwards, Mrs May's office released her minister's letter of resignation, in which said her conduct in Israel had fallen "below the high standards" required of her post.

"While my actions were meant with the best of intentions, my actions also fell below the standards of transparency and openness that I have promoted and advocated," Ms Patel wrote in the letter to Mrs May.

"I offer a fulsome apology to you and to the government for what has happened and offer my resignation."

In a responding letter, Mrs May said: "It is right that you have decided to resign and adhere to the high standards of transparency and openness that you have advocated."

Ms Patel had harboured leadership aspirations but was undone by the 12 meetings with Israeli officials and groups during a family holiday to the Middle East in August. She failed to tell officials in advance of the meetings and was accused of misleading the prime minister about the full extent of her contacts with Israeli politicians.

Priti Patel harboured leadership ambitions. Daniel Leal-Olivas/ AFP Photo
Priti Patel harboured leadership ambitions. Daniel Leal-Olivas/ AFP Photo

Following the meetings, she had asked officials from her department to investigate public funds being used to support an Israeli army project treating wounded Syrian refugees in parts of the Golan Heights.

The National understands that officials went as far as drawing up a memorandum of understanding between the two countries to supply aid to the hospital project.

The proposal was rejected because the Golan Heights is occupied territory, and UK policy is not to channel its aid budget to the Israeli military.

The prime minister's official spokesman was unable to say on Wednesday whether the minister had told her that the scheme would have involved supplying funding to the Israeli army.

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Most of the meetings were set up by Lord Polak, a corporate lobbyist, and a major player in a powerful pressure group, the Conservative Friends of Israel. No other British government officials were present for any of them.

“If she can't prevent herself being used as a puppet by a passing lobbyist, she's not fit to be in the cabinet. Should go either way,” said Maria Eagle, an opposition Labour MP, in a tweet on Wednesday.

Ms Patel issued a lengthy apology on Monday but it emerged that she had failed to tell the prime minister about another meeting in Westminster with Israel’s public security minister, Gilad Erdan.

Mr Erdan wrote about the meeting on Twitter, publishing a photo of the pair together and describing her as a woman of “great courage”.

He said they were taking concrete action “to advance UK-Israel development cooperation and counter attempts to delegitimise Israel in international institutions.”

“Priti wants to be leader, she’s made that very clear to all of us. Unfortunately for her, she’s too stupid and her actions here have proved that,” an ally of the prime minister was quoted as telling The Sun newspaper.

Ms Patel further enraged lawmakers by leaving early for the trip to Uganda - ahead of officials and another minister booked on the trip - and thus avoided questions about the affair in parliament. However, she was only in Nairobi, Kenya, for a few hours before she was back on the flight to London to face the prime minister.

Her progress back to Britain was charted on social media by thousands of critics who followed the progress of flight KQA100 on flight tracking software.

Website Flightradar 24 reported that more than 22,000 had tracked the minister’s flight to Heathrow before she headed to a meeting with the prime minister.

Her sacking was the second high-profile departure in a week as Mrs May’s government lurches from crisis to crisis while she tries to get a grip on Britain’s negotiations to leave the European Union.

Michael Fallon, her defence secretary, quit his job last week as he faced accusations of sexual harassment. Her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, also faced calls to go over his mishandling of questions about the detention of a British woman in Iran.

“There are times when a government has the stench of death about it," Pat McFadden, a Labour Party MP, told parliament on Tuesday.

The government initially said last week there was no need for an investigation into Ms Patel’s activity in what critics said was a sign of Mrs May's political weakness and her desperation not to lose another senior politician from her minority government.

But it emerged that the prime minister learned only after meeting Mr Netanyahu to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration this week what had happened in August.

“She’s abused her position…. and it’s time for her to be sacked and to be gone,” said Kate Osamor, the shadown (opposition) secretary for international development told Sky News.