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Explainer: How a UK minister may lose her job over 'secret' meetings in Israel

Another diplomatic incident has cropped up for British Prime Minister Theresa May’s scandal-prone government.

Benjamin Netanyahu visit to UK Theresa May meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting in 10 Downing Street last week. Source: Joe Giddens via PA Images

ANOTHER POLITICAL SCANDAL has bubbled to the surface for Theresa May’s government, and this time, it has a diplomatic dimension to it.

It involves UK minister Priti Patel, the Israeli army in the Golan Heights, and the gaffe-prone Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – as well as more unwanted media attention for Britain’s Prime Minister.

Before this scandal broke, Prime Minister May was dealing with a series of harassment accusations that led to her Defence Secretary Michael Fallon resigning, and a diplomatic incident sparked by Boris Johnson (you can read more about that one here).

The latest bad news came this week when it emerged that International Development Secretary Priti Patel held 12 meetings with Israeli groups and officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while she was on holiday in the country in August.

These meetings didn’t follow correct government procedure, as she hadn’t told the prime minister or her colleagues about it beforehand.

Conservative Party Conference 2017 Priti Patel gives a speech during the Conservative Party Conference. Source: Empics Entertainment via PA Images

So what exactly happened?

Between the 13 and 25 August, Patel traveled to Israel for what was framed as a holiday. She attended 12 separate events during her visit, which included a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss collaboration between the two countries.

The other events comprised meetings with Israeli ministers, businesses and charities to discuss collaborations and “prospects of partnership work”.

When the news about the 12 meetings broke last week, Patel insisted in an interview with the Guardian that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson “knew about the visit”. After some back and forth over this, her department was later forced to clarify the statement, saying “the foreign secretary did become aware of the visit, but not in advance of it”.

In two separate incidents less than a month later on 7 September, Patel met Gilad Erdan, the Israeli minister for public security, and was photographed with him on the House of Commons terrace.

On 18 September, while in New York, Patel met Yuval Rotem, an official from the Israeli foreign ministry.

Patel has since apologised, saying the meetings “did not accord with the usual procedures”, and publishing the details of the meetings to appease the media and the opposition. But her critics have said that Patel had gone too far, claiming her actions were in clear violation of the ministerial code of conduct.

(Further muddying the waters, The Jewish Chronicle is now reporting that Number 10 told Patel not to include that 18 September meeting in her list of undisclosed meetings published on Monday.)

But things have escalated again in the past 24 hours. Last night, it was revealed that Patel had failed 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 suggestion which was refused).

In addition, the Israeli news organisation Haaretz reports that Patel visited an Israeli military field hospital set up by in the Golan Heights to treat victims of the civil war during her visit in August.

That’s an important detail.

The Golan Heights is an 1,800 km sq territory that is internationally recognised as Syrian territory, however, two-thirds of the region has been occupied by Israeli forces since 1967.

The UK is among those countries which do not recognise Israel’s claim to the Golan Heights, and so providing aid to the Israeli army would likely go against UK policy. Because of this, it’s not normal protocol for British ministers or senior officials to travel to the Golan Heights.

MIDEAST-GOLAN HEIGHTS-MILITARY EXERCISE Israeli soldiers operate tanks during a military exercise in the northern part of the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. Source: Xinhua News Agency via PA Images

UK political reporters are now hearing that Patel’s position is no longer tenable, and Conservative MPs failed to defend her during discussions of the issue in the House of Commons yesterday.

Patel is currently flying back from a State visit to Africa after being called back early in order to answer questions from the prime minister and her other Cabinet colleagues.

But early this afternoon, reports are indicating that Patel will be leaving the Cabinet – making her the second minister to do so in a week.

Labour MP Chris Bryant tweeted that this incident wasn’t just about Priti Patel, but about Theresa May’s ”weakness and indecision”.

“A paralysed Premiere in the paralysed parliament,” he said.

Steven Fielding, professor of politics at the University of Nottingham, said that in normal political times both Patel and Johnson would have been fired. But these are not normal times, he says.

“It’s a multi-level crisis,” Fielding said.

We are left with a party that is divided over the biggest decision this country has to make, with a prime minister who has no authority and a government that has no majority in the House of Commons.

But he predicted the government will “stagger on”, because it fears losing to Labour if it faces an election.

“They know that they are toast if they allow themselves to leave office before Brexit is finalised,” he said.

- With reporting from the Associated Press

Read: Boris Johnson wants to clarify remarks he made that ‘jeopardised’ woman jailed in Iran

Read: UK Defence Secretary resigns, says his past behaviour may have ‘fallen short’

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