The legend among Labour’s growing band of anti-semites is that Israel is uniquely able to further its interests in Britain. The truth is that no foreign affairs issue is as contested here as Israel-Palestine, and frenzied partisans are to be found on both sides of the argument. The Left has become increasingly pro-Palestine as time has passed, though there is a lively Labour Friends of Israel movement. Conservative Friends of Israel is a bigger beast, because much of the Right is pro-Israel, though there is a determined pro-Palestine presence on the Tory backbenches.
The irony of Patel’s personal outreach to Israel’s Government and politicians, therefore, is that all it has achieved is to advance the viewpoint of that country’s enemies. The International Development Secretary has been driven this morning to the verge of resignation by a second installment of the story. It has emerged that she reportedly held two unauthorised meetings with, respectively, an Israeli Minister and diplomat after her return from that country, in addition to the four politicians, including Benjamin Netanyahu, that she met while on holiday on Israel earlier this year without previously notifying Downing Street or the Foreign Office. Patel was apparently accompanied in these latest meetings, as in previous ones, by Stuart Polak, the honorary president of Conservative Friends of Israel.
The Michael Fallon affair couldn’t be more different from the Patel controversy, but it had a point in common: it was a reminder that a senior politician can usually survive one big negative story, but not two (or more). Furthermore, the International Development Secretary has already been compelled to concede, in cold print, that she erred in reacting to the first set of claims – first by suggesting that Boris Johnson knew about her meetings in advance, which he didn’t, and second by implying that no more had taken place than those originally reported. There were twelve in total, including various charitable visits. That can’t have left much time for the holiday during which these engagements took place.
This site cannot remember an occasion on which a Cabinet Minister, or indeed any Minister at all, had their mistakes highlighted on their own department’s website. This development, plus the briefing that Patel was given a dressing-down in person by the Prime Minister, suggests that the former would have been sacked by now were the latter in a stronger position. But ultimately the fate of a single politician matters less than that of a country of which Britain is an ally, if sometimes a critical one. By their nature, policians are, as Robin Day once put it to John Nott, “here today, gone tomorrow”. Israel will last rather longer than that, as will its engagement with our interests.
There is no claim that the Israeli Government knew that the International Development Secretary was freelancing. And it will presumably not need reminding – though some of its friends here apparently do – that it is compelled to be especially careful. It has longstanding concerns about the Government’s funding of the Palestinian Authority, and Patel recently froze aid to it pending a review, following claims that taxpayers’ money was finding its way into the hands of convicted terrorists. There will have been unhappiness within her own department at the decision. Israel also has a longstanding complaint – and not an unreasonable one – about UK funding of hate education in the Authority’s schools.
The facts could be read as suggesting that the International Development Secretary was constructing an alternative policy, having met departmental resistance to her wishes. There is an oddity in that she does not seem specifically to have breached the Ministerial Code of Conduct, which means either that Downing Street and senior civil servants will move to make it more specific, or that they will prefer to keep it vague (because that gives them more room for manouevre). But government becomes incoherent if Ministers freelance in this way. Patel is a brave woman with clear-cut views – we applauded her decision to risk her career by coming out for Brexit – but there is a point at which determination can ossify into stubborness. Either way, these unauthorised meetings have been a blunder. It looks fatal.
For all its faults, Israel remains the only liberal democracy in the Middle East – complete with that nexus of free elections, independent judges, an outspoken media, sexual freedoms and a flourishing civil society that make it so. It is part of the Western enterprise despite its geography. This helps to explains why the adolescent Left hates it, and why Labour is now in the grip of institutional anti-semitism. But its interests are not identical with Britain’s, since no other country’s can be – particularly since its future as a democracy is not guaranteed. The lesson of the Patel affair is that its friends should bear this in mind.