Ok, so August may not be as ideal a time as spring for a visit. Tel Aviv is hot but it also has perhaps the best urban beaches in the world to plunge into the Med and cool off. And whether you’re floating in the Dead Sea or climbing Masada at sunrise, kayaking in the River Jordan or snorkelling in the Red Sea off Eilat, Israel is still a great holiday destination.
A pity then that Priti Patel seems to have had so little time to enjoy it on her now famous “family holiday” this summer. It can hardly have been that relaxing given that she averaged one meeting a day with politicians from Israel’s Prime Minister down to officials and voluntary organisations. Meetings of which, despite the fact that such a detailed programme must have been planned in advance, she failed to give the Foreign Office, the British Embassy or for that matter her own Prime Minister, any prior notice.
Much of the debate this has provoked – not to mention the speculation that if Theresa May was stronger she would have actually sacked the International Development Secretary – has concentrated on the gross breach of ministerial protocol involved – unprecedented in the view of the former Foreign Office Permanent Secretary Sir Peter Ricketts. Benjamin Netanyahu is not just any Prime Minister but one in a zone of conflict on which the UK government is supposed to have strong views. Any visiting minister, on holiday or not, would be expected at the very least to call up the embassy and say – “I’m seeing Bibi. Can I come in for a briefing? Is there anything I should be saying to him?” And of course to give a full account of what took place once it had happened.
But there is another point about all those meetings which Patel helpfully, if belatedly, detailed in her apologetic statement on Monday: their remarkable one-sidedness. Patel heads a department which has a long history of humanitarian and development funding for Palestinians. Indeed she has taken a close interest in that funding, going so far as to announce a review last year which has already resulted in notable cuts of some £17m. This includes, to the widespread dismay of NGOs, cuts in funding to Gaza, where humanitarian and economic conditions are generally agreed to be at their direst ever. Things are so bad that last week the Israeli military’s general in charge of civil affairs in the occupied territories, Yoav Mordechai, no less, called for a new “Marshall Plan” of aid for Gaza, without which he suggested another war could well ensue.
The cuts were partly a response to arguments from lobbying from self-styled pro-Israel groups and others here that money used by the Palestinian Authority to support prisoners’ families, for example, amounted to subsidising “terrorism”. But at least one those cuts demonstrably did nothing of the kind; the Department for International Development (DFID) has now stopped its share of EU funding for the payment of tens of thousands of PA employees in Gaza who were told some eight years ago by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President to refuse co-operation with the new Hamas government by staying at home.
There was a strong case for not paying such a subsidy in the first place, and instead encouraging the Abbas loyalists to keep working, not least because Hamas quickly recruited others – including Hamas supporters and members – to fill their jobs. But the problem now is that those salaries – already cut by Abbas in his latest attempt to squeeze Hamas by causing fresh misery for Gazans – are utterly crucial to what is left of Gaza’s stricken economy. And while DFID did recently agree – under pressure from NGOs and others – to grant £1.9m to Unicef for emergency aid on sewage and electricity in Gaza, it goes nowhere near making up the difference.
It’s a bit much to expect Priti Patel to visit Gaza on her holiday. Yet what’s extraordinary about her busy itinerary is that at no point did she even slip across the green line to Ramallah to bring herself up to date on these issues – of vital concern to her Department. And of course if this had been an official visit on government time, it’s inconceivable that she would not have been obliged to do exactly that. And that would be true even if the review of funding to the Palestinians was not “ongoing” as her department described it at the end of last year.
Let’s bend over backwards here. Some of the Israeli organisations visited by Priti Patel do good work within Israel – and at least one, providing help for children with serious heart conditions, includes Palestinian patients as well as others among its clients. There are serious demands on the aid budget elsewhere in the region, and Patel has won some plaudits for her focus on Yemen and Syria. Nor is there any proof so far of sotto voce accusations that she was attempting to shore up her pro-Israeli credentials to attract funding for a future Tory leadership campaign. Indeed, Priti Patel has a long record of support for Israel which predates her visit.
But that’s rather the point. For this was also a highly political programme in which she made no effort – of the sort required by stated UK policy – to balance her visits by even one to Palestinian officials or NGOs. She seems to have come back keen on exploring ways of directing aid to Israel itself. Leave aside that she had to be reminded on her return that DFID can hardly operate by funding Israeli Army humanitarian work with Syrian refugees in the Golan Heights because the UK regards the Golan as illegally occupied territory. Is it really UK policy to pay for projects anywhere, however worthy, by a well-funded Army charged with enforcing an occupation of Palestinian territory which Britain regards as contrary to international law? Nor it is easy to see how first world Israel – as opposed to the occupied territories – meets the criteria for overseas aid set by the the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development..
There are still unanswered questions about the visit. Did Priti Patel tell Boris Johnson about it before or after one of her interlocutors, the politician Yair Lapid, blew her cover by tweeting her presence on 24 August? More fundamental, however, is whether the one-sided content of her programme reflected a shift in UK policy. If it did, we should be told. And if it didn’t, should she be doing the job?
Donald Macintyre was the Independent’s Jerusalem correspondent between 2004-2012 and is the author of ‘Gaza: Preparing for Dawn’, published by Oneworld 2017