It would not be an exaggeration to say that in many respects relations between Israel and Britain have never been better. Last Thursday night, during an event to mark the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, Theresa May spoke approvingly of the Jewish state and of her pride in Britain’s instrumental part in bringing about its founding. She declared anti-Zionism to be the modern-day version of antisemitism.
Many in May’s Conservative-led government are outspoken in their support of Israel, not just Priti Patel, the UK’s former secretary of state for international development.
However, the scandal surrounding Patel, who was forced to resign last week after it came to light that she had met with a number of Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seems to point to the bipolar nature of Israeli-British ties.
On one hand, the two countries share sensitive intelligence; Britain has purchased hundreds of millions of pounds worth of Israeli weapons systems; and coordination between the militaries of the two countries has reached new heights.
On the other hand, Patel’s innocuous 13-day visit to Israel has been betrayed in the most nefarious way, as if Patel had not been visiting a close ally with mutual interests and shared values, but a country with which Britain was at odds. As noted by Tovah Lazaroff, The Jerusalem Post’s deputy managing editor, “One has to ask, if Patel had secretly met with officials in the Netherlands, would anyone care?”
Patel’s meetings have been portrayed as “secret,” as if some hidden, perhaps dangerous, agenda that Patel felt should be kept under wraps was being pursued. But nothing could be further from the truth. The meetings were fairly wellknown while they were taking place, even though Patel and Lord Stuart Polak – a Jewish Conservative Party politician and pro-Israel lobbyist – did make a mistake by failing to disclose the meetings to the Foreign Office in advance.
Nobody tried to hide the fact that Patel was having the meetings. Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan both even tweeted photographs of themselves with Patel speaking together in public.
The same day that Netanyahu met with Patel, Deputy Minister Michael Oren reportedly notified Britain’s Deputy Ambassador to Israel and Middle East Minister Alistair Burt about the meeting.
What’s more, the meetings became known to the Foreign Office three months ago. If they were such a big source of concern, why was nothing done about them for so long? Why is it that the “scandal” was made public in Britain last Friday, to coincide with Netanyahu’s visit to London for meetings with May and to mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration?
Meanwhile, the British press, in a tendentious attempt to sensationalize what was in reality nothing more than a breach of protocol, presented one leg of the trip as though Patel was seeking to transfer hard-earned British taxpayers’ money to the Israeli military.
In reality, however, Patel was looking into the possibility that Britain would help defray some of the costs for maintaining an Israeli field hospital on the Golan Heights that treats wounded Syrian refugees.
Both The Guardian and The Independent – at least initially – reported that the money was going to the IDF, as noted in a piece for The Algemeiner by Simon Plosker, managing editor of HonestReporting.com.
The Times of London claimed, meanwhile, that Patel sought to provide British aid to an Israeli Army program “treating wounded Syrian jihadists, including al-Qaida fighters.”
We understand that newspapers have to make money and that sensationalism sells. We also understand that nearly anything to do with Israel arouses strong emotions in Britain.
But what about journalistic integrity? There is much to appreciate in Britain’s approach to Israel. May is undoubtedly one of the most pro-Israel heads of state in Europe, though she is bogged down with political problems.
But Patel’s treatment is not just the collateral effect of May’s crisis-ridden government. Rather, the Patel scandal is an uncomfortable reminder of the toxic atmosphere of anti-Israel sentiment both in British society and in the Foreign Office. Apparently, it is no coincidence that this reminder was made now, as Israel and Britain celebrate the Balfour Declaration, the Jewish people’s first decisive diplomatic success on the road to statehood.