Priti Patel. Photo: Flickr/Policy Exchange Priti Patel. Photo: Flickr/Policy Exchange

Priti Patel’s secret meetings have put Israeli influence in British politics in the spotlight, but we need a wider conversation, including about Emily Thornberry argues Shabbir Lakha

Despite her best efforts to lie and bury the truth, Priti Patel’s secret meetings in Israel and some of her motivations have now come to light. It was revealed that during her “holiday” in Israel in August, Patel had 12 meetings in Israel including one with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – all without the knowledge of the Foreign Office or Theresa May.

After initially denying the meetings were unknown to the Foreign Office, Priti accepted the allegations and apologised for her dodgy dealings and for lying – an apology that Theresa May accepted. It was later further revealed that she had had more undisclosed meetings, including in the House of Commons accompanied by the leader of the Conservative Friends of Israel, had visited an Israeli field hospital in the occupied Golan Heights and on return had attempted to funnel foreign aid money to the Israeli army.

She conveniently moved forward her trip to Kenya and left the country before Members of Parliament could grill her in the Commons about the latest revelations. Rumour is that she’s been called back and is likely to be sacked by the end of the day.

There are several reasons why Priti’s actions are a serious issue for the Tories and why we can’t let them get away with it.

Earlier this year, investigative journalists from Al Jazeera exposed how the Israeli Embassy was trying to influence British politics. From infiltrating the student movement and trying to oust its pro-Palestinian President at the time, Malia Bouattia, to coordinating Labour Friends of Israel to remove Jeremy Corbyn and plotting to “take down” government ministers that are critical of Israel. Theresa May accepted the feeble apology from the Israeli Embassy and the dismissal of their employee at the centre of the exposé without further investigation, despite the Ambassador Mark Regev also being part of it.

Netanyahu has also proved in the past that he has no qualms with trying to influence foreign politics behind the backs of governments; namely when he visited the US without the permission or invitation from Barack Obama to convince members of the Congress and Senate to vote against the Iran deal that Obama was working on.

Throughout the last year, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have tried to blame anything they possibly can on alleged Russian interference. The main spotlight has obviously been on Trump’s election victory, but on this side of the pond anything from Brexit to Jeremy Corbyn’s by-election win in Stoke was alleged to have had Russian influence. And had this been anyone associated with the Labour Party (not even an MP, let alone cabinet minister) that had met with Russian officials, the outrage would have been immense. Yet, the concrete evidence of Israel’s attempt to influence British politics has repeatedly been swept under the rug.

Priti Patel’s actions have brought this issue to the fore, however. Although the attention and action has been (and rightfully so) directed at Priti Patel herself and on this weak Tory government that can’t control its Ministers to follow the Ministerial code, there should be no shying away from pointing out Israel’s behaviour and its clear disdain for democracy.

The undisclosed meetings are one thing, but visiting the Golan Heights which is internationally recognised as illegally occupied territory since 1967 and to try lobby the Department for International Development to use funds from the tiny foreign aid budget on the Israeli army – the fourth biggest army in the world and one of the most funded because of the US’s massive $3bn+ annual funding package – is an absolute farce.

The truth is that consecutive British governments’ appeasement of the increasingly rogue Israeli government has come back to bite Theresa May. Just last week Theresa May was dining with Netanyahu and celebrating the Balfour Declaration – I wonder if he mentioned his meeting with Priti to her.

The Labour Party

This is a moment for the Labour Party to go fully on the offensive and not only demand the immediate resignation of Priti Patel but a thorough independent investigation into Israeli influence on British politics and – seeing as Priti has brought it up – Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.

But on this matter not much can be expected from the Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry who has aligned herself to a pro-Israel position. Jeremy Corbyn rightly refused to attend the Balfour Declaration centenary celebrations that Netanyahu was a special guest at, but Thornberry went along and gave a speech that was utterly shameful.

She started her speech by declaring Labour’s long-standing and unequivocal support for the State of Israel and Zionism, proudly quoted Mark Regev and regurgitated Israeli propaganda about the LGBT-friendly Israel in a homophobic region. She recounted attending war criminal Shimon Peres’ funeral and, like the smears against pro-Palestine activists in the Labour Party that have been prevalent, she conflated anti-Zionism with antisemitism.

Contrast that with Jeremy Corbyn sending a message of support and solidarity to the 15,000-strong demonstration supporting Palestine and calling on the government to apologise for the Balfour Declaration on Saturday. But despite this, Thornberry had no issue with calling Jeremy Corbyn a Zionist and saying that there was “no place in the Labour Party for anyone holding the view that Israel should not exist”.

According to Thornberry holding a view that opposes the right for the State of Israel to exist as an occupying, apartheid-practicing state or describing oneself as an anti-Zionist and objecting to the history of Israel’s oppression of Palestinians is unacceptable. How Israel can be both a Jewish and Democratic state, or how the occupier with the fourth strongest army in the world is the one that faces the “constant threat of terror”, or what part of Britain’s role in aiding and abetting ethnic cleansing, occupation and apartheid we should be proud of don’t seem to be valid questions for Thornberry.

It is not a secret that the Labour leadership is far removed from the rest of the Parliamentary Party on matters of foreign policy and in particular the issue of Palestine. Since Jeremy first started gaining popularity during the leadership contest in 2015, the Labour right and Friends of Israel have tried to undermine him by spreading the smear that his support for Palestine is antisemitic and we’ve seen two years of a witch-hunt of anti-Zionist Labour Party members. Emily Thornberry has made it abundantly clear which side of this divide she’s on.

Pressure from below

We demand:

  • The immediate sacking of Priti Patel and Boris Johnson
  • An independent and thorough investigation into Israel’s influence on British politics – from Labour and Conservative Friends of Israel to the Israeli Embassy to the Israeli government
  • An end to the witch-hunt against anti-Zionist Labour Party members and a change in Labour Party policy away from appeasing to the crimes of Israel and celebration of Britain’s colonial legacy
  • Replace Emily Thornberry as Shadow Foreign Secretary with someone who shares the same beliefs as the Labour Leadership and vast majority of Labour Party members
  • An end to diplomatic, trade and military relations with the State of Israel as long as it is illegally occupying and oppressing the Palestinians.

The Tories are quite literally crumbling and Theresa May can’t even command authority within her own cabinet let alone the country. It is precisely now that we should ramp up our activity, particularly on the streets, to push them into the dustbin of history where they belong. We should also be putting pressure on the Labour Party to ensure the likes of Emily Thornberry are not hampering the Palestine solidarity movement and not undermining Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. 

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.