It was a day of political drama straight out of an Armando Iannucci comedy sketch. Britain’s International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, was in hot water for meeting Israeli officials without involving the Foreign Office. Yesterday, she was suddenly recalled from a visit to Africa to be sacked by the prime minister. Online, 22,000 people tracked a Kenya Airways flight that she was believed to be on. Journalists anxiously checked whether her Whatsapp was online. A BBC helicopter waited at the airport to follow her car to Downing Street. And, across the sea, camera crews chased the kippah-wearing president of the Conservative Friends of Israel into the massage parlour of the King David Hotel.
In ordinary circumstances, a minister who breaks protocol on meeting foreign officials would probably be given a slap on the wrist. But these are no ordinary circumstances. Theresa May’s government has been written off as hopelessly incompetent, and the press smells blood. Britain is in the throes of a nervous breakdown. And, of course, at the centre of the story stands Israel.
Conservative MP Priti Patel stands accused of meeting Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, without involving the Foreign Office. They discussed the possibility of sending British aid money to the Israeli army’s humanitarian program treating victims of Syria’s civil war. Patel failed to disclose these meetings in advance. She also visited an Israeli field hospital on the Golan Heights, which Britain does not recognize as part of Israel. When the meetings made news, she apologized. When it became clear she failed to formally report two meetings on the list of twelve she divulged, she was forced to resign.
There is something uncomfortable in the way the British press is treating the Israel angle. For starters, this was not exactly a “secret” trip, as the entire press reported: The Jewish Chronicle reports Downing Street was updated almost immediately, and even urged Patel not to report a meeting with the director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry lest it embarrass the Foreign Office (Downing Street denies this). Moreover, even the opposition Labour Party says it is not credible that Downing Street didn’t know Patel was in Israel, since she met UK Consulate officials in Jerusalem. Israeli politician Yair Lapid tweeted a picture of his meeting with Patel; and the “undisclosed” meeting with Israeli minister Gilad Erdan in Parliament was tweeted in real time. The label “secret” to describe these meetings has an undeservedly sinister undertone.
And then there’s the coverage of Lord Polak, the president of the Conservative Friends of Israel, who accompanied Patel in Israel. A man described by the Times as “a key power-broker within the Tory party—with the numbers and contacts of dozens of key Tory financial backers”, and by the Guardian as a man who “spent 28 years lobbying on behalf of the Israeli state”.
The Guardian, the bastion of Britain’s liberal left, went further than any other paper in using the Israeli connection to go after Patel. It ran the outrageously misleading headline that “Priti Patel wanted to send aid money to the Israeli army,” clarifying only in paragraph eight that she wanted to send it for the Israeli army’s humanitarian effort for Syrian refugees. For that, she earned a cartoon depicting her inside what looks like an IDF tank or digger. The paper’s Jerusalem correspondent covered the story through the lens of “Israeli efforts to discreetly influence British policy,” as if Jerusalem was responsible for Patel’s failure to follow her own government’s protocol. He also linked the story to an Al-Jazeera sting that portrayed a junior Israeli embassy official in London as “plotting” to “take down” unfriendly British politicians. Little wonder that the Guardian editorial said that while a “mid-vacation courtesy call” might be forgiven somewhere benign like Denmark, “secret diplomacy” in the Middle East was “nothing less than mutinous”.
There isn’t an antisemitic undertone to the reporting. But the press spin of secret meetings, with questions about wealthy Jewish lobbyists helping Israel gain underhand influence over British policy, runs the risk of pushing some worrying buttons. Labour has been clear that Patel’s resignation is not the end of the story, sending the prime minister a list of questions for clarification. If the news cycle in Britain decides to drag this story on rather than jump to the next manufactured crisis, Britain’s Jewish community will be unnerved by what a bored punditocracy could do with such fecund material for a conspiracy.