UK minister Priti Patel resigns over secret Israel trip
Posted November 7, 2017 8:12 p.m. EST
Updated November 9, 2017 3:03 a.m. EST
LONDON (CNN) — UK government minister Priti Patel resigned Wednesday amid a political storm over her undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials.
The UK secretary of state for international development was summoned back from Kenya by Prime Minister Theresa May after it was revealed she met senior Israeli officials during a family holiday in the summer, a significant breach of diplomatic protocol.
During the visit, Patel, who paid for the trip herself, met with a dozen politicians and organizations, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yuval Rotem, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official.
She also met with Yair Lapid, the head of Yesh Atid, one of Netanyahu's coalition partners, who tweeted about their meeting.
Even as Patel offered a "fulsome apology" on Wednesday in her resignation letter, May offered a firm rebuke to the departing minister.
Patel's departure will throw May's Conservative government into further chaos after the sudden resignation last week of Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, who stood down after becoming embroiled in a growing Westminster sexual harassment scandal.
Adding to the turmoil, May's de facto deputy, Damian Green, was forced to deny allegations at the weekend that "extreme" pornographic material was found on his work computer in 2008.
In another development, former Welsh government minister Carl Sargeant, who was sacked last week after undisclosed allegations about his personal conduct, was found dead on Tuesday. He had apparently killed himself, the UK Press Association reported.
Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was forced to backtrack Tuesday over comments he made about a British-Iranian woman, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is jailed in Iran accused of espionage, after an outcry from her family and other lawmakers.
The scandals are an unwelcome distraction at a time when May, who failed to win an overall majority in June's general election, faces an uphill struggle in ongoing Brexit negotiations. Her government is also under pressure from Labour to release secret documents detailing the economic impact of withdrawing from the European Union.
Still, May's position is likely safe for the time being because nobody wants to step into her shoes at this point in the Brexit negotiations, CNN correspondent Diana Magnay said.
"Hers is an unenviable position right now, and unless she faces a sort of back-bench revolt from her own MPs -- which is perfectly possible -- she may limp on for a while yet," Magnay said.
In a letter to May on Wednesday, Patel apologized for causing a "distraction" and admitted that "my actions fell below the high standards that are expected of a secretary of state."
"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," she wrote. "I offer a fulsome apology to you and to the government for what has happened and offer my resignation."
May, in a letter to Patel released by Downing Street, thanked Patel but also rebuked her for the undisclosed meetings.
"As you know, the UK and Israel are close allies, and it is right that we should work closely together," May said in the letter. "But it must be done formally, and through official channels."
May said she welcomed an earlier apology from Patel for the meetings, which took place in August, but that it was right for her to resign "now that further details have come to light."
Patel forced to clarify comments
According to the UK Foreign Office, Patel's meetings in Israel were not disclosed in advance, but rather "while (her trip) was underway." By convention, ministers' meetings with foreign officials are conducted under strict protocol. Any private meetings should be disclosed in advance.
News of Patel's meetings with Israeli officials emerged in the UK media at the end of last week. In an effort to explain her actions, Patel told the Guardian that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson knew about her trip.
However, Patel was forced on Monday to correct the record and make clear that the foreign secretary was not informed in advance of her trip to Israel, but became aware of it while she was there. In the same statement, she clarified that she had met with a dozen Israeli politicians and organizations.
Patel apologized, saying: "In hindsight, I can see how my enthusiasm to engage in this way could be misread, and how meetings were set up and reported in a way which did not accord with the usual procedures. I am sorry for this and I apologize for it."
Jon Trickett, Labour's shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, said May had serious grounds to launch an investigation into Patel's apparent breaches of the ministerial code, and should do so or explain how Patel deserved to stay in her post.
"Downing Street has confirmed that even after she was caught, Priti Patel was far from frank in her meeting with the Prime Minister yesterday about her secret meetings and discussions with members of a foreign government," he said.
Further meetings reported
Patel's apology failed to dampen the story. It was later revealed that Patel held two further meetings with Israeli officials that were not disclosed in Monday's statement.
Britain's Guardian newspaper reported that Downing Street had also rebuked Patel on Tuesday for failing to inform May of departmental discussions over plans to send aid money to the Israeli army to support humanitarian operations in the Golan Heights, a move that would contravene British foreign policy. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and annexed it in 1981. The UK, in line with almost all the international community, regards the Golan Heights as Israeli-occupied territory.
The Jewish Chronicle then published a story claiming that May was made aware of Patel's meeting with Netanyahu within hours of it occurring and that Patel had been instructed by Downing Street not to mention the two meetings that were not disclosed on Monday.
Downing Street dismissed the claims. "It is not true that the Prime Minister knew about the international development secretary's meeting with PM Netanyahu before Friday, 3 November," a spokesman said in a statement.
"It is equally untrue to say that No. 10 asked DfID (the Department for International Development) to remove any meetings from the list they published this week."
In response to a request for comment from CNN, the Israeli Foreign Ministry confirmed Patel's meeting with Rotem, a senior ministry official, but would not disclose the content of the meeting. The ministry also declined to comment on a report by Israel's Haaretz newspaper that Patel had visited the Golan Heights while in Israel.
Yair Lapid's office told CNN that the politician "regularly meets with senior leaders from abroad who are visiting Israel. The meeting with Priti Patel was warm and friendly. He looks forward to continuing to strengthen the Israel-UK relationship."