Priti Patel — a prominent figure in the British government — took time out from a private holiday to meet with the leader of one of Israel's main political parties without telling the Foreign Office and breaking with its stringent ministerial rules.
The international development secretary was accompanied by an influential pro-Israeli Conservative party lobbyist Lord Stuart Polak, when she met Yair Lapid, the leader of Israel's centrist Yesh Atid party, to discuss official departmental business.
Overseas Official Business
It has been claimed that Ms. Patel made visits to several organizations over a two-day period in August, without informing British diplomats of her plans, despite a convention whereby ministers must tell the Foreign Office if they are planning on engaging in official business while overseas.
According to one source, at least one of the meetings was held at the suggestion of the Israeli ambassador to London, Mark Regev, and no British civil servants were involved.
Possible Leadership Bid?
There have been suggestions that the British government minister, who was joined by Lord Polak, honorary president of the Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) — an influential lobbying organization that has access to wealthy party donors — had been trying to win support among rich Tory party figures in order to fund a potential future leadership campaign to replace UK Prime Minister Theresa May.
British diplomats have, however, stressed that they had not been informed of the international development secretary's plans.
"We didn't know and would have expected to know, given the meetings she had," said a source within the Foreign Office.
An unnamed British minister accused Ms. Patel of conducting her own "freelance foreign policy" on Israel, having been a long-standing supporter of the country and a former vice-chairman of CFI.
"This is outrageous. She is a cabinet minister. She just cannot do this," he said.
Other critics argued there was a potential risk that the meetings could have broken the ministerial code of conduct, which states that "ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or could reasonably be perceived to arise, between their public duties and their private interests, financial or otherwise."
"What does this say to the rest of the Middle East if a senior cabinet minister in charge of Britain's huge aid budget disappears… from a family holiday in Israel and is under the wing of a pro-Israeli lobbyist?" a former minister asked.
Mr. Lapid, a former finance minister in Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government, tweeted a picture of the meeting on Thursday, August 24:
Great to meet with Priti Patel, UK Secretary of State for International Development, today. A true friend of Israel. pic.twitter.com/8q9qSeX7YZ— יאיר לפיד (@yairlapid) August 24, 2017
Lord Polak, who has been a director of CFI for 25 years, confirmed also that meetings had taken place.
"We met up for one or two things. It was the summer holidays. I just joined her for a couple of days, some drinks, some dinner, that kind of thing," he said.
Regarding the meeting with Mr. Lapid, Lord Polak added: "He is just an old friend of mine, a personal friend. Her is more a journalist than a politician. We just had coffee with him. It wasn't anything formal. It is all very innocent."
The peer did admit he had organized for Ms. Patel to visit Israeli companies and charities, creating technologies that could be interesting to a secretary of state for development.
Among those visited was Beit Issie Shapiro (BIS), a disability charity and campaign group, where Ms. Patel reportedly discussed the possibility of her department forming a long-term partnership with the organization.
Jean Judes, executive director of BIS, later published a picture on social media of Ms. Patel visiting her organization:
And Pablo Kaplan, business developer & entrepreneur at Wheelchairs of Hope tweeted:
Hon Priti Patel MP — UK Secretary of State for Int. Dev. and MP Sir Stuart Polak at Beit issie Shapira.UKAID to support wheelchairs of hope. pic.twitter.com/q445ARP4qo— pablo kaplan (@pablokaplan2008) 28 August 2017
News of the meetings could risk potential embarrassment as Mr. Netanyahu is in London to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, when Britain first gave its support for a national home for the Jewish people.
UK government sources have attempted to play down the meetings, insisting Ms. Patel had done nothing wrong as it was a private holiday paid for by the minister.
Reducing Support for Palestine?
Britain presently sends about £68 million (US$88.9 million) to support the Palestinian territories, most of it from the DFID's budget. Some of the money is given directly to the Palestinian Authority, the rest through the local United Nations agency or individual groups.
Ms. Patel has long been a critic of this funding. She tightened up the guidelines on Palestinian spending last year, focusing more on health and education.
The international development secretary has, so far, declined to comment on the matter.