There are many remarkable things about the 13 meetings that Priti Patel had in Israel in August, and then in London and New York in September.
Foremost among them is the complex cocktail of commercial, diplomatic and political conflicts of interest apparently involved. The most prominent in media debate has been her breach of the ministerial code in failing to inform the Foreign Office about her visits. This has a number of implications, amongst which are that the meetings were not recorded by the Foreign Office – though they presumably were by Israeli officials. There was no security assessment by the British government, opening up the risk of conflicts of interest if commercial interests were discussed, and the risk of vulnerability to blackmail or other pressure from Israeli officials.
Amongst the commercial interests it is surely extraordinary that she should meet people connected to clients of Lord Polak’s lobbying firm The Westminster Connection (TWC). Polak was present with Patel at 12 of the 13 disclosed meetings – and his Israel lobbying connections have been widely remarked. He was the director of Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) from 1989 for 25 years, stepping down in 2015, when he took a seat in the Lords – but remained the honorary president of the CFI. CFI is widely recognised even by Conservative observers to be a ‘very influential group’. It reportedly counts 80% of Tory MPs as members. Priti Patel herself was an officer of the Parliamentary group of CFI between 2011 and 2014.
CFI has given £377,994 to the Conservative party since 2004, according to data held by the Electoral Commission and reported by the Financial Times. CFI directors have given further donations to the party totalling almost an additional £300,000. Donations have also been made to individual politicians including such hardline pro-Israel politicians as Michael Gove and Robert Halfon. In the period since 2004, no fewer than 162 Tory politicians have been taken on trips to Israel. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson (then Mayor of London) was one of four Tories (including future Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers, future Defence Minister Mark Francois and future Chancellor George Osborne) to visit the country in 2004. Osborne’s trip cost £1,891.60. The four-day visit was recorded in the Register for Members’ Interests as being for ‘research and study’. During the trip they met then-Finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and were taken to the site of a suicide bombing in Israel’s Carmel Market. Osborne told the Jewish Chronicle that what he saw there ‘will stay with me the rest of my life. To see these things with your own eyes brings home the threat that Israelis face every day.’ Later on, the four MPs – Johnson recalls – ‘got very, very drunk’ and had ‘an extraordinary evening of merriment’ with an Israeli journalist, and, according to Osborne, ‘ended up singing Israeli resistance songs in a karaoke bar in Tel Aviv’.
CFI is normally discussed in relation to promoting the interests of Israel in the Tory party, but the complex webs of influence at the top of politics also intersect with other interests. Lord Polak, for example, also advises an insurance firm and has a role in lobbying firm TWC Associates (formerly The Westminster Connection). Clients of the latter ‘political strategy’ consultancy (Polak objects to the term ‘lobbying’ to describe its activities) include the Israeli defence company Elbit Systems, the British chair of which (retired General Richard Applegate) was secretly recorded by the Sunday Times in 2012 saying that Elbit had ‘piggy back[ed]’ on Conservative Friends of Israel to ‘gain access to particular decision makers’. The charge was partly denied by TWC. ‘TWC has never asked CFI to table questions or arrange approaches.’ said Scott Hamilton, a partner at the firm. ‘I am satisfied that there has been no impropriety whatsoever on TWC’s part.’
Elbit, which makes drones and other weapons systems, is still a TWC client and is active in the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory illegally occupied by Israel since 1967. It is this connection which is perhaps the most shocking. Downing Street confirmed that Patel had proposed funnelling money into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) – which would have been in contravention of government policy, which is that the UK does not fund the IDF. The Golan Heights is not recognised as Israeli territory by the UK.
Patel had said that this would be ‘humanitarian’ aid to give medical treatment to injured Syrian refugees in the IDF field hospital located in the area. However, as the Wall Street Journal reported back in 2015, the ‘refugees’ treated by the IDF include Islamist fighters from Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra, who are patched up and sent back to the conflict.
Patel’s extraordinary approach to the well-funded IDF seems consistent with her decision last year to cut aid to the Palestinian Territories by £17 million including cuts in funding to Gaza which, it is widely agreed, is in terrible need.
Patel also met other TWC clients on her ‘holiday’ including, as Buzzfeed noted, Beit Issie Shapiro – a disability charity that has showcased products made by OrCam, an Israeli client of TWC.
Overall, the Patel affair suggests a government in disarray, so weakened by its slim majority and internal divisions – most notably over Brexit – that it cannot function effectively. But this also speaks to a much wider crisis in public life today: the crisis of corruption.
It is perhaps the confidence that Patel and Polak appear to have had that they could simply ignore the rules that is the most extraordinary feature of this story. Priti Patel was of course a professional lobbyist in a previous existence, working for Weber Shandwick; her clients included British American Tobacco, and from 2003 to 2007 she worked as a lobbyist for Diageo, the drinks giant.
Even more complex than the commercial interests involved in this story is the parallel and secretive diplomatic track that the meetings appear to reveal. This is reminiscent of the complexities of the Liam Fox-Adam Werrity scandal where the same blurred lines were apparent and, indeed, some of the same players. Werritty, funded by several prominent Israel lobby-connected actors, jetted around acting for Liam Fox the Defence Secretary – even though has was not one of Fox’s official advisors. At the time this seemed to be an extraordinary, secretive, parallel diplomacy with the intent of boosting hawkish Western policy toward Iran. The politics of the Patel affair appear not too distant from that previous scandal, this time focused on Syria and on switching the British aid effort from the Palestinian Authority to an openly partisan pro-Israel position.
The story has been put about that part of the reason for the meetings was Patel’s fundraising effort for a bid to be PM, or Leader of the Tory Party. If it was, the more interesting question is what secret agreements she might have entered into in return.
Current transparency rules seem to be woefully inadequate for capturing data on this kind of activity – a real argument for much tighter rules on disclosure of meetings with lobbyists and on conflict of interest. But these are in, some senses, details. Any incoming reforming government that seeks to end this culture of secretive influence trading and to advance a Foreign Policy based on respect for human rights would need to conduct a root-and-branch reform of the institutionally corrupt practices of British democracy. It would also have to strike a quite different note in its relations with the Israeli government, which has shown on this occasion – not for the first time – its willingness to subvert British democracy in order to continue to pursue its activities in well-recognised breaches of international law.