British International Development Secretary Priti Patel attends a meeting with representatives from humanitarian aid agencies in Mogadishu, Somalia..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israelis pride themselves on their informality, but deliberate disregard for proper procedure can often backfire, as Priti Patel, the former British cabinet minister, found out to her cost last week. And she is not the only person to fall foul of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s casual approach to governance.
First to Patel. The former British international development secretary spent her summer holiday in Israel meeting with high-level Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Foreign Ministry director-general Yuval Rotem and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid. Not my idea of an ideal itinerary for what Patel described as a “family holiday,” but each to their own.
In these meetings, Patel reportedly discussed the possibility of sending British aid money to the IDF for its humanitarian work with Syrian refugees in the Golan Heights. Given Britain’s official position of not recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, this was always going to be an unlikely ask.
It was not, though, the topic of her discussions that cost Patel her job but rather the fact she failed to properly inform the official channels back in London as to just how she was spending her holiday. Astoundingly, she met Prime Minister Netanyahu without any other British officials present and without letting 10 Downing Street or the Foreign Office know in advance of her plans.
So once the Foreign Office learned through its own sources of these meetings, it was only a question of time before the BBC was tipped off about Patel’s secret diplomacy. In what surely was not a coincidence, the news broke when Netanyahu was in London, a day after dining with British Prime Minister Theresa May to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Israel was back in the headlines, this time at the center of a political scandal.
At first glance, Netanyahu is blameless in Patel’s fall – he did not engineer her meetings in Israel nor craft her misleading statements once the scandal broke – but he cannot totally avoid responsibility for her resignation. Netanyahu has been in office long enough to know that visiting politicians do not turn up at the Prime Minister’s Office without an embassy official from that politician’s country in tow. The fact that Patel was freelancing should have set off alarm bells and led to Netanyahu canceling the meeting.
By not doing so, and nipping this in the bud, the prime minister (and let’s not forget, foreign minister) allowed a chain of events to be set in motion which has led to the loss of a pro-Israel British cabinet minister (there are not many of them), burned the lobbying credentials of Lord Polak, the honorary president of the Conservative Friends of Israel, who organized Patel’s meetings, and undermined British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who still talks fondly of his time volunteering on a kibbutz. Not the greatest of a returns for a meeting which has not led to any change in British funding for Israeli humanitarian work.
Closer to home, Netanyahu’s failure to follow norms of behavior expected from a prime minister are likely to have even more serious consequences, both for Netanyahu himself and those closest to him.
Aside from the revelations about Netanyahu’s actions in Cases 1000 and 2000, and the suspicions of bribery, fraud and breach of trust surrounding the prime minister, Netanyahu confidant Yitzhak Molcho spent most of last week under interrogation as a suspect in the investigation into suspected corruption in Israel’s purchase of submarines from a German shipbuilder, or Case 3000 as it’s also known.
Molcho, a rich and successful Jerusalem lawyer, has also worked as Netanyahu’s chief negotiator and envoy on sensitive diplomatic missions for many years, under an arrangement in which for a salary of a shekel a year he served as a public servant, while also continuing with his more lucrative legal work.
The suspicion is that while serving as a public servant Molcho tried to push the submarine deal during his diplomatic trips abroad on behalf of Netanyahu’s government, while his office partner and even closer Netanyahu confidant, David Shimron, sought to promote the interests of the German shipbuilders within Israel, thereby enabling their jointly-owned office to profit handsomely from the deal.
Netanyahu has denied any knowledge of the Molcho- Shimron office’s dealings with the German shipbuilders, and he may well not have known anything about it. But by enabling a situation in which a private lawyer functioned as the voice of the prime minister in sensitive diplomatic negotiations while still running a leading legal practice representing clients with interests all over the world, Netanyahu failed to prevent any such occurrence of a possible conflict of interests.
Such casualness might not be criminal, but an experienced prime minister, particularly one who has been the center of numerous police investigations over the years concerning irregular procedures, should have known better.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.